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

1 comment:

  1. I am teaching an inclusive acting class with a few older kids (tweens and young teens) with speech apraxia, affecting the precision of their speech production. I am thinking of using these poems to bring together art and speech production: there is such a good reason to get the "ch" at the end of "touch" in this poetry. What do you think? And do you have other suggestions for literature that would come to life with teens and tweens? --Mary