Review of the Day: Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow
Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin. $10.95
Poetry Friday in the hiz-ouse. Or so I am led to believe.
I don’t mean to jump the gun here, but if we happen to be in need of a future Children’s Poet Laureate once Mr. Prelutsky concedes the throne, I would like to nominate one Ms. Joyce Sidman for the honor. I can’t really consider myself to be any kind of expert on the form, mind you. Poems seem nice enough, but they very rarely wow me. If something rhymes that’s cool, but I’m a lackadaisical poetry lover at best. It really takes something with a bit of punch to wake me out of my anti-poetic malaise, and that something (more often than not) is Ms. Sidman. Her acquisition of a much coveted Caldecott Honor for, “Songs of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems”, may have struck some as out of left field, but for anyone familiar with her work there could be no surprise. Now she’s followed up that hit with yet another. Taking the purportedly incompatible notions of science and verse, Ms. Sidman weaves the two together so seamlessly that the reader is left completely unaware of the fact that this poetry book is (gasp, shudder) TEACHING them something. Not for the faint of heart, to say the least.
Sixteen poems describe the multitude of meadow denizens that stake a claim in that particular kind of land. Each poem describes a creature, though it’s up to the reader to guess that animal/plant/insect’s identity. Two pages of poetry showing a hint of the thing being described lead into two more pages of factual information. For example, you might read that, “We tumble / we twitter / we dip / float / and flitter”, but when you turn the page you’ll find information telling you how goldfinches (the answer) are “extremely social birds, flocking together not only during migration but also all year long.” Some poems are funny, some are mysterious, and most leave you ah-hankerin’ for more. At the end kids will also find a Glossary of those terms that might have escaped their comprehension earlier in the book.
The writing is, as always, magnificent. My favorite poem out of the bunch is, “An Apology To My Prey”, which contains such lines as “And my wings: I regret their slotted tips / that allow such explosive thrust / their span that gathers wind / effortlessly, and of course their / deadly, folding dive.” Sometimes when I meet with the homeschooler bookgroup that I run, I do a poetry unit with them for kicks. Hearing the kids say lines like, “a golden sickle poised over / your soft, helpless heart” or “seeking, as they do, that final grip”, is something I look forward to. Ever confusing the issue, Sidman never plays it safe. She could have just kept her poems within the same ABAB rhyme scheme and no one would have given it a second thought. If I have any objection with the book it is the mildest wish that perhaps maybe there could have been a brief explanation of the types of poems found in the story. What is the name of a poem where the words themselves make the shape of the animal being discussed (as is done with, “Don’t I Look Delicious?”) or those read in two voices (as with “Sap Song”)? Looks like teachers will have some work on their hands using this book in their poetry unit. Time to break out Paul B. Janeczko’s, “A Kick In the Head” for defining the right forms.
I was a little surprised to find that that illustrator on this project was not Beckie Prange (as she was on “Song of the Water Boatman”) but rather the somewhat similar Beth Krommes. Where Prange worked in woodcuts, however, Krommes prefers the scratchboard technique. It’s rather enthralling. More to the point, I personally feel that the switch to Krommes was a good move on the publisher’s part. In “Song of the Water Boatman” Prange did a nice job, but the illustrations felt almost a little too straightforward. They were entirely accurate, but (sorry, guys) kinda dull. Prange limited her color palate, and the result was a perfectly nice if not particularly thrilling series of pages. Krommes, in contrast, isn’t afraid to liven things up a little. Her image of gathering dew shows tiny blue circles clustering close under a purple sky filled with variegated stars. The meadow is alive here, encompassing vast fields, or a single eye of a buttefly as needs be. There are also two panoramic views at both the front and the back of the book of the meadow at dawn and at night that demand to be stared at for several full minutes of time. Particularly if that viewer happens to be of the youngish brain-still-growing variety.
Ms. Sidman is, of course, not the only children’s poet to tackle scientific notions in a poetic fashion. I would be much amiss not to mention Jon Scieszka’s lovely little “Math Curse” and “Science Verse”. Still, if kids learn anything from Scieszka’s books it more as an afterthought than part of his original intent. And Ms. Sidman, for all that she packs fact after fact into this book, never ends up with a dry as toast school textbook either. She knows exactly how to sift together equal parts information and entertainment. And you know, you can yammer on as long as you want about things like “the circle of life” and how one creature effects another’s existence and never make even the slightest dent of an impression on a young person’s brain. Far better to just hand a kid this book then. Here we can see how the fox eats the rabbit and the milkweed sustains the butterflies without launching into dull preachiness. This is the cycle expanded and encompassing a wide range of critters big and small. The rare meeting of “interesting” with “faaaaabulous”.