Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night

I've paid $1.20 to review this book for all of you.  I know that's a little backwards, but I've had a bunch of books come due at the library all at once.  I liked this one so much, and wanted to think about it a little more before writing about it, so I kept it out, accruing overdue fines all the while.  This is when it's inconvenient to not be a librarian any more!  But it's a good one, I promise!

Joyce Sidman's books of poetry have twice won Caldecott honors for their illustrations.  I especially love Red Sings from Treetops.  But this year it was Sidman herself who got the winning call - she had won the Newbery Honor Award.  And as you read through this book, it is easy to see why.

The opening poem "Welcome to the Night", sets the tone for the book.  Sidman invokes all of the senses in this first poem while telling readers about the nocturnal creatures they'll be meeting.  Rick Allen, the illustrator (more on the illustrations later) set this poem against a twilight scene, as night begins to seep into the forest.  The scene is set.

Each double-page spread is set up in the same way - poem on the left hand page with a small spot illustration; then a much larger illustration on the right that takes most of the page.  On the far right hand side of each spread is a sidebar of information about the nocturnal creature discussed in the poem.  This is a really thoughtful page construction.  I love how the illustration is placed between the poem and the facts - to give you time to digest Sidman's soaring verse before learning more information.  I love that there is information included here - I hate to say it, but I think it makes the book more "usable" for those who might not be poetry lovers.  I wish I had a picture to show you this extremely appealing page design, but you'll have to take my word for it.

I wanted to talk briefly about my favorite poems.  The title poem "Dark Emperor" is about the great horned owl, and the poem is shaped like an owl trying to grab a tiny mouse.  I also love "Oak After Dark" - we tend not to include trees as nocturnal beings, but Sidman points out in the sidebar that trees also are busy working at night.  But my favorite poem of all is "Night-Spider's Advice".  I love the night-spider's calm, practical wisdom, including these final lines: "Someone has to remake/ the world each night./ It might as well be you."  Stunning.

I hate to criticize now, but there is one thing that I thought would make this book stronger and perhaps more useful.  There is a glossary of terms included at the end, and I thought this would make a great place for information about the types of poems Sidman has written.  For instance, the last poem, "Moon's Lament", is called an ubi sunt, but without a definition, I'm not sure what makes this poem different.  There are multiple types of poems here, and I suspect it would help readers understand this cycle of poetry and why Sidman chose the styles she did.

Finally, the illustrations.  Rick Allen uses a relief printing process in this book, and the blocky prints are a perfect partner to the moody poetry.  There are plenty of thick black lines to evoke the night, but he hand colors the light parts of the illustration with vibrant gouache, making these parts sing in contrast.  They are luminous and heavy together, just like the night.  The cover is also amazing with the great horned owl hovering over the reader and the book's title, glaring down at both fiercely.  The little spot illustrations throughout all include the eft, a creature that eventually becomes a newt.  The poem and sidebar about the eft explain how these creatures wander the woods, making them most likely to end up crossing paths with the other creatures here.

This is a glorious, thoughtful book.  You can tell how much care went into its creation, and I celebrate the fact that the Newbery committee recognized it as one of the best books published in 2010.

Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night.  Joyce Sidman; illustrated by Rick Allen.  Houghton Mifflin, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis and Clark Library

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

We Are In a Book!

I have always loved Mo Willems.  Every time we've read one of his books - whether at home with Frances and Gloria, or at storytime when I worked at the library - I came away with some new tidbit he had tucked away in an illustration or newfound respect for the way Willems interacts with his audience.  But when Willems won his first Geisel Award for There is a Bird on Your Head!  in 2008, I hadn't read the Elephant & Piggie series.  I thought "Good for him!", but didn't take it any farther.  Even after a co-worker who is a regular reader of my blog told me this series was genius, and how much her daughter loved it (Hi, Sofia!), I still didn't make an effort.

But I'm here today to tell you how much I love the Elephant & Piggie series, and how revolutionary these readers are, just in case you've been skipping over them like I did, thinking "Oh, they're just readers - I know what readers are."  No, you really don't.  Let's talk about Willems' latest Geisel Honor winning book We Are in a Book!

To give you a little background, Elephant (whose name is Gerald) and Piggie (whose name is just Piggie) are friends.  Best friends.  They do everything together.  Elephant wears glasses, Piggie does not.  On the very first page, Elephant and Piggie are sitting down, back to back.  Piggie says "Thank you" and closes his eyes.  As Piggie closes his eyes, Gerald opens his and hisses to Piggie that someone is watching them!  Piggie gets up to examine the intruders and tells Elephant that there are indeed people watching them, and those people are called READERS.  Then Willems begins an intricate dance between characters and the reader.  Piggie first declares that he'll make the reader say "a word".  That particular word, when said by the reader, throws Elephant into pages of infectious, hysterical laughter.  But then the friends begin to panic when they realize they are drawing near the end of the story.  So they beg the reader to start the book again.  Remember Piggie's thank you at the beginning?  It's a delightful circle - the kind that all kids enjoy following again, and again, and least in my house.

Part of Willems' creativity in this series of books is in the emotions of the friends and how those are expressed on the page.  When Elephant is laughing hysterically, his hee's and ha's grow bigger and multiply until the page full of laughs makes the reader helpless - they have to laugh along.  Emotions are clear on Elephant and Piggie's faces, giving needed context to beginning readers.  Yelling is done in a large font, whispers in italics...these books ask to be read aloud by an expressive reader.

One of the fascinating things about this particular book in the series is how Willems experiments with perspective.  On the title page, Elephant's proclamation "We Are in a Book!" is the title and Elephant himself is so large he blocks out Willems' name.  As Elephant and Piggie interact with the reader, they move up close and then draw back into middle ground, bringing the reader in with them.  Piggie also hangs off some word balloons, turning our traditional sense of a picture book on its ear.  However, the backgrounds are uncluttered and the drawings simple, to help focus readers on what is important - the words.
There are very few words on each page, and what's there is solely dialogue.  Another genius idea of Willems' was to color coordinate the word bubbles with the friend who is speaking.  Elephant's word bubbles are grey; Piggie's are pink.  Beginning readers can grasp plot movement very quickly when using the words in the word bubbles along with that character's actions and facial expressions (Side note - these books not only make terrific read-alouds, but would be fun plays, too!). 

While I'm spending a lot of time talking about beginner readers (after all, these are the awards Willems has won three times!), I don't want those of you with preschoolers to just ignore this series.  One of the best things about this series for my girls (3 1/2 and 2) is that they can "read" the books themselves.  The combination of facial expressions, movement and limited word choice makes it easy for them to retell the stories over and over again, and that, my friends, is an important step on the road to literacy.

I can't say enough what great books these are.  Elephant and Piggie's personalities bring to life what can be seen as a chore (learning to read).  It's hard work writing a beginning reader with a controlled vocabulary, and there's a good reason Willems keeps winning the award named after the greatest beginning reader author of all - Dr. Seuss.  The books have sparkle and wit.  Have I told you yet how fun they are to read aloud?  Go get them!!!

Willems, Mo.  We Are in a Book! (Elephant & Piggie) Hyperion, 2010.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Wednesday, February 2, 2011


I finished reading Keeper a few days ago, late at night.  But I wanted to think about it, and let it seep in.  I also have had very little sleep for the past few days (Gloria and Frances have been sick) and I wasn't sure I could be coherent about it.  Hopefully now that I've gotten a good night's sleep, I'll be smarter!

Keeper is having a very bad day.  It is a blue moon, and everyone in her small, gulf-side neighborhood is angry at her.  For a ten year old, that is hard to deal with.  Keeper has ruined Signe's gumbo, she has ruined Mr. Beauchamp's night-blooming cyrus and she has ruined Dogie's ukelele.  There is nowhere to turn for comfort except for her birth mother, who is a mermaid.

As you begin the novel, Keeper is already out in the pond which connects to the Gulf of Mexico.  She has "borrowed" Dogie's boat, even though she has been told that it is not sea-worthy.  Keeper has been raised by Signe after Keeper's mother became a mermaid when Keeper was young - or so Keeper believes.  The other people on this small road form an unusual, close-knit family.  In fact, Dogie was going to sing a marriage proposal to Signe that very night...until Keeper broke his ukelele.  Keeper (nicknamed by her mother on their last day together) feels the weight of her actions as they seem to spiral out of her control.  The only person who she believes can fix things is her mermaid mother.

Appelt takes the traditional mythology of the sea and turns it on its ear.  Keeper knows every story about mermaids and the creatures of the ocean, and because there is a blue moon this night, the magic is thick in the air.  Keeper's story is so drenched in mythology, in fact, that readers will be prepared to believe just about anything.  It is a strong introduction  to magical realism for an older elementary school student.  This story is about love and family connections, but it's also about the call of the sea and how you can sometimes mishear it through the waves.

All of this summary and discussion does not do justice to the tension of this novel.  From the very beginning, you know that Keeper is out in a boat, pointed out to sea, in the middle of the night, by herself.  As readers, we know that there is the potential for quite a bit of danger.  Keeper's naivete as she begins her journey is stunning.  She believes her mother will rescue and protect her on this trip, so there is nothing to worry about.  However, Keeper could not be more wrong.

The ocean chapters are short and succinct, building on the tension until you are gulping chapters to see whether Keeper can survive her perilous quest.  But Appelt subtly relieves the tension by interspersing Keeper's chapters with chapters from the other characters' points of view.  While Keeper has certain things that she has always believed about her childhood, the other characters understand more.  Appelt explores the ideas that children hold about themselves and their childhood through Keeper.  But the adult characters show how coming of age often means learning more about what you have held dear.

One of the strongest pieces of magical realism in Keeper involves Mr. Beauchamp.  He is the oldest person living on the beach, and he has been waiting a very long time for the love of his life to appear.  Appelt tells his story with kindness and compassion, as he rejected the person he loved when there was something about him that was different.  Mr. Beauchamp's love is a man, but it is handled respectfully and in a way that a child who wasn't ready to read about it might only see a loving friendship.  And the way this love melds with the rest of Keeper's story is terrific.  I don't want to spoil the plot too much, but I will say that the legends of the sea truly become human in this story in a very fulfilling manner.

All in all, I am surprised that this book hasn't won any major awards this season.  My only complaint about the book is that at 399 pages, it looks a little long for the audience.  However, its small format and short chapters mean it reads very quickly.  The comfort of the ocean setting, the love that comes from Keeper's non-traditional family, the mermaids that swim throughout Keeper's imagination make this a beautiful novel.

Keeper.  Appelt, Kathi.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library.

YA Reading Challenge

So I'm a little late jumping on this bandwagon, but jump on I will.  Here's the link to the actual challenge -
I choose to do the "Fun Size" challenge (which is reading 20 Young Adult novels), although in reality I might even read 40 books (the "Jumbo Size").  I'm looking forward to noting some of my reads, although I probably won't review every one of the 20 books...just the ones that I really want to talk about.  But I just wanted to let you all know.  And if I can figure out how to put the button on my blog, I'll do that too!!  Let me know if you want to join in.