Some Impossibly Great Poetry (And a Couple Pets) Before Breakfast

h1 July 28th, 2007 by jules

Blog break, schmlog break. Here are two books I’ve been meaning to talk about for forever now, both illustrated by Steve Jenkins, who is some kind of talented and a favorite of mine and a favorite of my children. (I mean, does it get any better than Actual Size?) . . .

Animal Poems
by Valerie Worth
and illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
March 2007
(library copy)

I’ve been sittin’ on this wonderful anthology of poetry by the late Valerie Worth for the longest possible time now (thank you, Nashville Public Library, for your loooong circulation periods), enjoying it and trying to find some time to tell you about it.

Now, I know I’m all the dang time shoo’ing you over to David’s reviews at the excelsior file (obviously, I respect his reviews), so you may not be surprised that I’m going to quote him again. In his review of this title, he wrote, “It’s so nice to pick up a book of poetry for young readers that doesn’t condescend to the notion that young readers need poems that rhyme.” Hallelujah, I say. My thoughts exactly when I read these detailed, vivid poems about animals. There’s not a bad poem in here, each one pithy and precise, covering a wide range of animals from the camel to the cockroach and bringing each forth in a new light, sometimes even providing commentary on the way we, as humans, live. Here’s an excerpt from her poem about the cockroach, one that speaks near and dear to my fears (I truly am starting to believe I have a phobia):

One that I can’t

In the least abide

Is the cockroach: not

So much that it scuttles

And bristles, and glues

Its slippery eggs in

The cracks of books, but

That it looks so clever:
As though it knows

My particular horror . . . .

I see now that David chose the same excerpt, but if you visit his review, you’ll see he has an excerpt from another poem as well. This will give you a good taste of the superb poetry inside this anthology, one of the best I’ve seen this year.

And Jenkins’ illustrations in this title merge perfectly — in all their seeming simplicity — with Worth’s concise poems. He once again succeeds with his remarkable cut-paper collages, which I could stare at for hours. There’s a fascinating texture to his work. Publishers Weekly wrote, “His artwork, as textured as oil paintings, contains astonishing shadow and depth.” Just look at the cover, and tell me it isn’t true.

An exquisite book.

Dogs and Cats
by Steve Jenkins
Houghton Mifflin
May 2007
(library copy)

This is a clever book, because it’s a non-fiction title about cats and dogs, full of fun facts and informative info. But what’s particularly clever is that if you’re, say, a Dog Person, Jenkins will still pique your interest in flipping the book upside down and over to the cat side, since — in each section of the book (dogs/cats) — he provides little teaser questions and trivia (in small text on the page’s corner) about the animal you are not reading about, making you succumb already to flipping the book over and learning even more about the animal you thought perhaps you weren’t so interested in. (Sometimes, he just flat-out says something like, “If you would like to read about cats, just turn the book over and start from the other side”). And the very center spread, entitled “Friends or enemies?”, shows a pet dog and pet cat lying side by side. On the left side, you read the text right-side-up, but to read the text on the right, you must flip the book. There. He’s got you again. Now you have to read about the other animal. He’s tricky, that Jenkins. I love this meeting-in-the-middle, as these domesticated animals are all spread out on an oval rug, as if waiting for you to pet them.

As for the cat information and dog information, Jenkins keeps things informative and interesting. With each animal, he tells us where they first came from, how they grow, what’s so special about them, and more. The final spread for each section, “I wonder
. . .”, is great — if you’ve ever wondered why dogs bury bones or why cats chase their tails, here’s your book. The final question for each “I wonder . . .” spread asks whether one animal is smarter than the other. But fear not; if you possess a particular and passionate allegiance to one animal over the other, know that Jenkins is diplomatic about it all.

There’s a level of depth here with this information that will satisfy the curious animal lover. The information is not quick and shallow, as you sometimes see in a lot of non-fiction books about animals. With each animal, Jenkins takes you back — way, way back — to the first modern humans and to the ancient Egyptians (who worshipped the cat), even linking the behavior of our domesticated pet dogs and cats to their existence in days long gone. It’s intriguing stuff. (I must add that I had no idea there existed a web-footed dog).

The book’s illustrations, Jenkins tells us in an author’s note, are cut and torn paper collage. Not a surprise to fans of his books. He adds, though, that “{m}any of the papers were made by hand. They come from Egypt, France, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, and the United States.” And, as par for the course for Jenkins in my humble opinion, it’s gorgeous stuff. I mean, you just have to see the first illustration (on the dog side) of “man’s best friend,” the dog leaping in the air with his beautiful coat. Knowing it’s made out of torn paper and wondering how Jenkins can make it look so effortless and make the dog look so touch-able . . . well, he gets me every time.

See also Fuse’s detailed review: “I don’t know how you create an ecstatic leap out of wood fibers. However it is, Jenkins knows the secret and he doles it out with skill. I also loved the sheer range of materials here. A dog might be made out of marbleized paper or thick gray fibers. And Jenkins doesn’t just create animals with his paper. He’s just as adept at showing the white ripples around a Newfoundland swimming in the sea or the brown of an early human hut.” For the record, I agree with her gripe about the need for Jenkins to include reference sources here (yes, where would he put them with this book’s unusual format? But, still . . . they’re necessary).

But, bottom line, a fascinating read.

If you go here to Jenkins’ site, you’ll see he has a new non-fiction animal title coming out in September, entitled Sisters & Brothers. Excellent.

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4 comments to “Some Impossibly Great Poetry (And a Couple Pets) Before Breakfast”

  1. Yay, kitties.


  2. Jules,

    I LOVE this book! I think it’s a gem–and will definitely be among the best poetry books published this year.

    I used Worth’s poetry with my second graders all the time. Kids that age aren’t too young to appreciate her style of writing–or to try to emulate it when writing their own original poems.


  3. I agree that it’s one of the best, Elaine. What a good year it’s been thus far for children’s poetry anthologies, huh? I mean, there are a handful I can name now that are outstanding. A handful may not be a lot, but they’re so good that they make up for the lack of any more.


  4. Jules,

    I couldn’t agree more. The poetry collections and anthologies I’ve reviewed to date this year at Blue Rose Girls and Wild Rose Reader are all topnotch. I may love children’s poetry–but I don’t love all children’s poetry books. I am really heartened by the books I’ve reviewed in 2007.


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