Review of the Day: City Beats
Publisher's Weekly occasionally has an issue entirely devoted to upcoming children's books. In it, all the new books are listed by their publisher with brief descriptions of what they consist of. Flipping through this issue my eye alighted on a book from something called "Dial Publishers" and their book City Beats. Since I'm on a committee that's trying to find the best children's books of the year and since this book looked nicely New York-centric, I got myself a review copy and was startled. I hadn't expected it to be good. But good it was and so if my review of this book seems a little too much, chalk that up to getting a little talked-about title that's shockingly, surprisingly beautiful.
It's not as if New York City has the copyright out on pigeons. Every major metropolitan city you enter is home to those animals some dub, "rats with wings". Still, when I heard about "City Beats: A Hip-Hoppy Pigeon Poem", I thought it would be a pretty safe bet that this was a book by New Yorkers for New Yorkers. Apparently living in Manhattan has fried my otherwise cute little brain. This book was written by Ohioans and was published in Nevada City, CA. So if you want to see this as a reflection of the birdies of the Big Apple, all power to you. Just bear in mind that pigeons have a long and colorful history and they're too big a species to be limited to any one town. In the case of "City Beats", the book does a remarkable thing. It brings to our attention the fact that pigeons are beautiful birds. Birds that are victims of their own success, no less. And in doing so we get glimpse of what the world must look like to them every day.
Open the book and the first thing you see the a sentence that asks, "Have you ever stopped to admire a pigeon?". Expecting (and 9 out of 10 times getting) a no, the book explains on a single page the history of the city pigeon and how these former Rock Doves adapted brilliantly to our human cityscapes. Then the real fun begins. A poem begins in the early hours of the day, wondering what pigeons might see during a typical day. Suddenly we're avoiding the gigantic feet of humans who are, "Brimming, bustling" as the birds snap up an abandoned doughnut. There are vehicles to pass, city construction to hear, delicious food scattered everywhere, a cool calming park to perch in. Rammell brings together everything from a candy-laden carnival-like atmosphere to cool jazzy evenings. Then we're back to the same window at the end of the day. Two pigeons doze off with the moon rising above them. "To feel the city's life / In its people, in its streets / But now the day is over / As we dream of city beats". I should note that with each page in the book, you read a poem referring to a scene on the opposite page. A scene that is glimpsed only through a small window. Then you turn the page, the window disappears, and while the poem is still visible you get to witness a full riot of color and pageantry all with the turn of a page.
The phrase, "A Hip-Hoppy Pigeon Poem" might be enough to scare off even the most committed of parents. Hip-Hoppy? The person picking up this book may dread opening it for fear that a pigeon in gold medallions starts beat-boxing at them. Allow me to allay your fears then. This book is all poetry and doesn't contain a single lame attempt to "speak to today's youth". The words describing each scene vary according to the images. When we witness construction, the words become onomatopoetic with lots of "Screech! Hiss! Pop! Pound!". Other times we're offered introspective looks at city life. "Candy rain, sirens wail / Booming low - blaring high /Rainbow dreams on wheels / Animals in the sky". As you can see from that last line, not every portion of this book scans perfectly. Still, they fit the book nicely enough.
Honestly? I could take or leave the words in this book. Rammell had a good idea, sure. No question. But the star of this show is Jeanette Canyon. The book says that she created the pictures with polymer clay, "a medium which complements her talents as both a painter and sculptor". Polymer clay. It sounds so very simple. Well... that is until you actually look at the pictures. I don't know how Rammell did it, but she's doing stuff with clay here that I've never seen anyone do before. I was willing to accept that clay might be used to fashion an intricate window frame. But the stained glass windows within it? Foggy city streets? The veins on a leaf of ivy? Heck, she's gone so far as to delineate each pigeon's iridescent feathers in clay, as well as the teeny tiny pieces of gravel that lie between a building's bricks. And the scary part? Everything I just mentioned appears on the cover of the book. Open it up and suddenly everything gets even more complex. I've seen some breathtaking pictures in my day, but Canyon takes the cake.
The book asks you in the end to, "gain a respect for the unsung pigeon, the dove that chooses to live with humans". We forget that pigeons are doves or that with their shiny purple/black feathers we might find them beautiful if they were a little less common (or friendly). Certainly it makes a strong case for loving this universally recognized boid. With the window scheme and clever cut-out construction, "City Beats" would pair beautifully with the wordless but artistically similar, "Home" by Jeannie Baker. If you are looking for a good rhyming selection with lots of excellent onomatopoetic words and art that'll knock your socks off (and keep on knocking), grab yourself this gem of a publication. And hopefully, like the pigeon it praises, it'll start appearing in every city too.