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Dennis Haseley (1950-) - Sidelights

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Psychotherapist Dennis Haseley has written extensively for children; his works include picture books as well as middle-grade and young-adult novels. Known for their unusual and imaginative subject matter, symbolism, and lyrical prose, Haseley's books have long captured the attention of reviewers. Among the most critically acclaimed are The Old Banjo, Ghost Catcher, and Shadows.

Haseley grew up in Brecksville, Ohio, where at the age of seven he wrote his first poem. While a student in high school and at Oberlin College, he renewed and developed his talent for writing, working with novelist and screenwriter William Goldman during a semester in New York City. After graduation, Haseley published verse in literary magazines and came to the realization that children's books offered an opportunity for him to showcase his talent. His first book for children, 1983's The Scared One, is a prose poem picture book about the rites of passage of a timid young Native American boy who has been nicknamed the Scared One by his playmates. "It is gravely told, and touching" wrote a reviewer in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, while a Publishers Weekly critic remarked that the story "resonates with the cadences of heroic legends."

Many of Haseley's picture books have caught the attention of reviewers. In The Old Banjo, which a Publishers Weekly critic termed a "sensitive ballad" and a "memorable story" and a Booklist reviewer called "a mystical, magical fantasy," a boy living on a Depression-era farm discovers some forgotten musical instruments that magically come alive. Describing the book—written by Haseley and illustrated by Stephen Gammell—George A. Woods concluded in the New York Times Book Review that "the combo of Mr. Haseley on words and Mr. Gammell on pencil have produced a modest piece that will strike a responsive chord in most readers." Likewise, School Library Journal contributor Ellen D. Warwick declared that "this beautiful book has something important to say about the nature of hope and the persistence of dreams."

In 1983's The Pirate Who Tried to Capture the Moon, a lonely, island-bound pirate captures all the ships that pass until he is himself captivated by the moon, an ending that a Kirkus Reviews contributor deemed "a satisfactory surprise." David Gale, writing in School Library Journal, noted that the text is "lyrical at times." Published the following year, Haseley's The Soap Bandit is, in the words of a Publishers Weekly critic, a "gentle allegory." Karla Kuskin, reviewing the book for the New York Times Book Review, commented on Halsley's inclusion of "imaginative and humorous touches." The Soap Bandit revolves around a mysterious stranger who steals all the soap from a quaint seaside town, changing the character of the inhabitants.

Many of Haseley's picture books deal with unusual subjects or are allegories. For example, The Kite Flier tells the tale of a man who is a stonemason by day and a kite maker by night. When his wife dies after their son is born, the man stops making kites until his son shows an interest in them. As the child grows, the father makes kites that symbolize his son's development. Years later, when his son is a young man ready to be launched into the world, he and his son make a special kite together and release it. While noting that the book's symbolism would be lost on a young readership, Maria B. Salvadore judged that "the book may have special appeal to an older audience" in her review for School Library Journal. Similarly, a Booklist critic predicted, "This quiet story is for the special reader; older children especially will respond to its formal language." With the picture book Crosby, Haseley returned to the subject of kites. This time, a lonely fatherless boy finds solace and freedom when he repairs and flies a broken kite. "It's a thoughtful, unusual picture book, more complex than most, and deserving of a close look," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. A critic for Kirkus Reviews, while remarking that Crosby "is a strange story" for such young readers, also admitted that the book offers "an emotionally satisfying ending." Writing in School Library Journal, Judith Constantinides praised the book as "a feast for both the eye and the ear."

Another book by Haseley that commentators thought more appropriate for an older audience is The Cave of Snores, which concerns a shepherd's son who wishes that his father would not snore so loudly. Several critics praised Haseley's text, Karen K. Radtke writing in School Library Journal that the book's language "properly captures the tall-tale boastfulness of Arabian folklore." Tim Wynne-Jones of the Toronto Globe and Mail described The Cave of Snores as a "cleverly contrived coming-of-age allegory," and called Haseley's language "lyrical and bursting with life."

My Father Doesn't Know about the Woods and Me relates how a boy, walking in the woods with his father, feels like he is transformed into the animals he sees. This "possibility weaves a magic spell over readers and listeners," wrote David Gale in School Library Journal. Describing My Father Doesn't Know about the Woods and Me as a "magical story," a Booklist critic likewise remarked that the book "offers possibilities to tweak children's imaginations." Another fantasy by Halseley, The Thieves' Market, revolves around a group of thieves who open up a market outside a town where children come at night to choose their dreams. Booklist contributor Leone McDermott highly praised the metaphor of the market and the "eerie beauty" of the text, describing the work as "unusual and affecting" and "filled with insight and respect for children's inner lives." This is a story that "may intrigue the curious, the lovers of mystery and magic" remarked Shirley Wilton in School Library Journal.

Rona Berg, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Haseley's 1989 storybook Ghost Catcher the author's "most ambitious and original work," a parable about "the pull of community and the power of love." The story tells of a solitary man called Ghost Catcher who has no shadow and so avoids forming relationships with the people of his Hispanic village. Because he has no shadow, he can bring people back from the brink of death. When Ghost Catcher is tempted by curiosity to visit the land of shadows, he is trapped and must be rescued by the villagers who, through their compassion and efforts, show what it is to depend upon one another. "American children, used to a heavier does of realism or a lighter flight of fantasy, may find this story confusing," maintained Berg, who nonetheless concluded that Ghost Catcher can be read and enjoyed on several levels. A Publishers Weekly reviewer voiced similar comments, noting that while the book may be too difficult for some children, with its illustrations by Lloyd Bloom, it is still "an intriguing, thoughtful collaboration" and a "highly atmospheric parable."


If Ghost Catcher is steeped in fantasy, Horses with Wings is more down to earth. The book is based on an historical event: Leon Gambetta's balloon escape from besieged Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Stephen Fraser, reviewing the book for Five Owls, praised Horses with Wings highly, declaring Haseley's work to be "nonfiction the way it should be: accessible, engaging, and alive." Booklist contributor Kay Weisman suggested that while "young children may miss the understated messages about war and peace" in the work, middle-school students could use the book as a discussion starter, and a critic for Kirkus Reviews called Horses with Wings "an interesting vignette, though the lack of a historical note is curious."


Although Haseley once admitted to Something about the Author that, after concentrating on picture books, "it was rather frightening to take on a novel," he has written several longer works for young adult readers. The Counterfeiter and Dr. Gravity are humorous treatments, while Shadows and Getting Him strike a more serious, responsive note. The Counterfeiter describes how would-be artist James falls in love with Heather, a cheerleader, and makes counterfeit currency in order to afford to take her on a date. James is a protagonist who "convincingly embodies the peculiar blend of frustration, cynicism and giddy optimism" characteristic of teens, according to a critic for Publishers Weekly. Reviewing The Counterfeiter for School Library Journal, Robert E. Unsworth noted that the book contains "lots of laughs and insight into the perplexities of adolescence."


With its focus on a man who releases townspeople from the force of gravity and faces weighty consequences, Dr. Gravity is a "rambling, old-fashioned novel" and "a graceful, carefully developed fantasy," according to a Horn Book contributor. Comparing the work to that of noted children's author Roald Dahl, Catherine M. Dwyer of Voice of Youth Advocates proclaimed that "Haseley has written a wonderful fantasy. Dr. Gravity is full of gentle humor and peopled with well-drawn characters." The Horn Book critic also maintained that "there is much humor in the story," adding that "Haseley's skilled use of description creates a convincing setting for fantastic events." As Dwyer concluded, young readers "will love this tale."

Shadows, a short novel written for middle-grade readers, deals with subtle ideas. Young protagonist Jamie wonders about his absent father and learns about him through stories his grandfather tells by casting shadows on a wall. Shadows elicited high praise from Liz Rosenberg, who reviewed the book in the New York Times Book Review. Haseley, Rosenberg contended, "possesses an acute sense of childhood's pathos," putting his talent to good effect in this "beautifully written novel." Rosenberg added that the novel "combines realism and fantasy," and "is strong and powerfully appealing," a story "perfect for reluctant readers, as well as all those who love good books."

Set in a small Ohio town in the late 1950s, Getting Him is a story of revenge against an eccentric sixth grader named Harold who has accidentally injured the dog of another boy named Donald. Because precocious Harold, who is only eight years old, believes in the existence of extraterrestrials, Donald and several of his friends perpetrate an elaborate hoax involving "aliens." Citing the work as a combination science-fiction novel, fantasy, morality tale, and coming-of-age story, a Publishers Weekly commentator wrote that "Haseley creates a mysterious stark world of preadolescent confusion." In a School Library Journal review of Getting Him, Tim Rausch noted that while "readers may enjoy the details of the boys' prank and the mysterious elements of the plot," the book's characters, except for Harold, "are flat, stereotypical, and basically unlikable." A Horn Book contributor, on the other hand, described the novel as "a thoughtful, complex story with an intriguing plot and rich, believable characters."

Haseley's A Story for Bear has a fairy-tale quality in its story of a curious bear who watches a young woman reading in a cottage. Over the summer, the bear and the woman often come together over a book. When she leaves at the end of the summer, she leaves him some books. He keeps them with him as he hibernates, hearing her voice reading to him again. Critics praised the book for its sweet tone and message about words and reading together. In Booklist, Julie Cummins commended the artwork and concluded, "This gentle message about the power of words is a tender, wistful celebration of the pleasures of reading." Similarly, a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews described the book as a "tender, if unlikely, episode that affirms the value of both the written and the spoken word." In Publishers Weekly, a critic found some of the story's inconsistencies to be a weak point, but called A Story for Bear "wistful" and added that Jim LaMarche's "artwork conveys the bear and the woman in growing intimacy."


Photographer Mole is a light-hearted story of a mole who is the portrait photographer in his village. When he begins to feel that something is missing in his life, he leaves town only to return later with a wife. Critics enjoyed the story and were particularly taken with the old-fashioned illustrations by Juli Kangas. In Publishers Weekly, for example, a reviewer praised the book's "picturesque, old-fashioned English-village setting evoked in loving detail" and also cited its "nostalgic mood." In Kirkus Reviews, another critic was drawn to the atmosphere created by the illustrations, noting that they reflect "an era of cobblestone streets, rolling green hills, red clay-tiled roof cottages, and a menagerie of characters dressed in period clothing." Julie Roach, writing in School Library Journal, remarked that Photographer Mole will "strike just the right chord with readers," adding that the charming illustrations "make a nice accompaniment to the sweet and gentle text."


Art and history take on new meaning in Haseley's young-adult novel Trick of the Eye. Richard is a lonely young man who finds that he is able to enter works of art and interact with the subjects. As he begins to uncover some of his personal mysteries, he is also able to investigate the disappearance of various works of art from local galleries. Many critics found the narrative structure of Trick of the Eye to be too weak to carry such an unusual premise. In Publishers Weekly, for example, a reviewer noted that because the story is "elliptical in its storytelling and circuitous in its structure," it may engage some readers but "leave others confused or even bored." School Library Journal critic Connie Tyrell Burns questioned Halseley's storytelling and characterization, writing that "Minimally drawn characters and a weak plot that is puzzling and ambiguous gives this brooding tale limited appeal." Terry Glover, reviewing the novel for Booklist, was more attentive to the material than the "odd narrative structure." Roach observed that the unusual approach and some of the content may make the book more appropriate for older readers, "who will find it a fine introduction to art analysis alongside the well-woven mystery."


Haseley once commented: "I often start a story—whether for a picture book or a novel—with an image or metaphor that captures me. For instance, for Dr. Gravity, it was the idea of a town that could float. Shadows began when I came upon a reprinted nineteenth-century book instructing the reader how to make various hand shadows. Crosby grew from the images of a kite's tail made of old socks and scuffed shoes that looked like turtles. Starting with a key, evocative image, I try to reach in some way into my own experiences and emotions and build a story that becomes for the reader—and for me—something that's new."


Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 1, 1983, review of The Old Banjo, p. 294; October 1, 1986, review of The Kite Flier, p. 272; January 1, 1989, review of My Father Doesn't Know about the Woods and Me, p. 788; March 15, 1991, review of The Thieves' Market, p. 1505; November 15, 1993, Kay Weisman, review of Horses with Wings, pp. 630-31; May 1, 2002, review of A Story for Bear, p. 1533; August, 2004, Terry Glover, review of Trick of the Eye, p. 1919.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1984, review of The Scared One, p. 88.

Five Owls, September-October, 1993, Stephen Fraser, review of Horses with Wings, pp. 10-11.

Globe and Mail, May 30, 1987, Tim Wynne-Jones, review of The Cave of Snores.

Horn Book, March-April, 1993, review of Dr. Gravity, pp. 211-212; January-February, 1995, review of Getting Him, p. 59-60.

Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1983, review of The Pirate Who Tried to Capture the Moon, p. 117; September 1, 1993, review of Horses with Wings, p. 54; August 1, 1996, review of Crosby, p. 1153; March 1, 2002, review of A Story for Bear, p. 335; May 1, 2004, review of Photographer Mole, p. 442.

New York Times Book Review, September 18, 1983, George A. Woods, review of The Old Banjo, p. 39; September 9, 1984, Karla Ruskin, review of The Soap Bandit, p. 43; October 20, 1991, Liz Rosenberg, review of Shadows, p. 53; April 26, 1992, Rona Berg, review of Ghost Catcher, p. 25.

Publishers Weekly, September 16, 1983, review of The Scared One, p. 125; October 14, 1983, review of The Old Banjo, p. 54; June 22, 1984, review of The Soap Bandit, p. 99; July 25, 1991, review of Ghost Catcher, p. 54; November 7, 1994, review of Getting Him, pp. 79-80; September 2, 1996, review of Crosby, p. 131; February 18, 2002, review of A Story for Bear, p. 96; April 26, 2004, review of Trick of the Eye, p. 67; July 5, 2004, review of Photographer Mole, p. 55.

School Library Journal, August, 1983, David Gale, review of The Pirate Who Tried to Capture the Moon, p. 51; November, 1983, review of The Old Banjo, p. 64; November, 1986, Maria B. Salvadore, review of The Kite Flier, p. 78; April, 1987, Tim Rausch, review of The Cave of Snores, pp. 82-3; October, 1987, Robert E. Unsworth, review of The Counterfeiter, pp. 138-139; October, 1988, David Gale, review of My Father Doesn't Know about the Woods and Me, p. 121; May, 1991, Shirley Wilton, review of The Thieves' Market, p. 78; September, 1996, Judith Constantinides, review of Crosby, p. 180; April, 2004, Connie Tyrell Burns, review of Trick of the Eye, p. 155; July, 2004, Julie Roach, review of Photographer Mole, p. 77.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1992, Catherine M. Dwyer, review of Dr. Gravity, p. 292.*

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