It’s funny to think that in the past most American kids lived on farms, yes? Nowadays the bulk of youngsters have at least a passing familiarity with big city life, even if they don’t live there themselves. So I sit and stare at this picture book collection of city-based poems and I think about it. What audience are we reaching out to here? Are there kids enthralled by bright lights, big cities? Do they wonder about far away places, and are willing to take a trip there, albeit a roundabout one via poetry? It’s times like these that, as a children’s librarian, I need to remember that not every book written for kids needs to fill a specific niche. I’m so used to answering reference questions that sometimes I forget that books like City I Love by Lee Bennett Hopkins are written to expand young minds, not limit them to what they already know. It’s a strange little collection, but strange isn’t bad. It’s just different. So if you’ve space on your shelves for the "different" out there, this should probably suit you just fine.
Over the years poet Lee Bennett Hopkins has written a variety of poems that, one way or another, refer to urban living. From 1971’s "Subways Are People" (a bold statement from 1971, I’d like to add) to the 2002 "City I Love", Hopkins has repeatedly given voice to the good and bad of urban living. Now eighteen of these poems have been collected. Set against a backdrop illustrated by Marcellus Hall, we see each poem take place in a different major city. "Get `em Here" shows a hot dog seller in D.C. "Snow City", appropriately, takes place in Toronto. Every poem shows a different aspect of city living (getting a cab in the rain, the noise, the excitement, the fire hydrants), and through it all our faithful dog guide, backpack in place, sees the sights and takes them in.
Poet Lee Bennett Hopkins did not write these books in one fell swoop, so you would expect them to feel a little more disjointed than they are. As they stand, the poems in this book feel as if they fit together. Not all the poems are necessarily city-ish, but that’s okay. You could argue that even though "Winter" isn’t specifically metropolitan minded, any city denizen who walk in slush can understand the sentiment behind a poem that says, "NEVER / EVER / quarrel / with / winter. / It / ALWAYS / win."
I think it’s fair to say that illustrator Marcellus Hall has shouldered more than his fair share of the work here, though. He hasn’t just drawn pretty pictures for a book. He’s given it a form and a narrative. Where once it was just a series of vaguely city-related poems, now we follow a well-backpacked dog traveler and his faithful pigeon companion. It’s a little unclear who had this idea. Mr. Hopkins? Mr. Hall? The editor? The art director? Whosoever it may be, it works quite nicely. The front and back endpapers show a map of the world with the cities featured listed. For a second there I tried to figure out whether or not the path taken by our nameless dog hero was something a person could do. Was it sequential? Did it make sense? As it turns out, not so much. The pups starts out in New York, hops over to Chicago, travels to Venice, makes a right turn for Shanghai, then high-tails it westward for Paris again. I mean, you could take this route, but it’s a little back and forthy.
Since Marcellus Hall is originally from Minneapolis, I had the vague hope that perhaps I should see a gigantic cherry sitting on a spoon with one of these poems (my Minneapolis brethren know what I’m talking about). Alas, a quickie glance at the endpapers’ map and Minneapolis is not listed. I’m sure there will be plenty of objections to what hasn’t been included (nothing from Australia, etc. etc.) but no matter. This wasn’t written to be a comprehensive in-depth look at the locales and personalities of various points around the globe. It’s just a taste of what you can find in that brave new world.
The publication page tells us that the book was "made with brush and ink and watercolor on paper." Looking at the book, I like Hall’s take on the subject. The aforementioned endpaper map is a strangely muted series of blues, browns, and grays. It immediately lightens up when you turn the page and see the dog on the title page walking in an unnamed city, a pigeon close behind. From here on in Hall starts playing around with distance and angles. The first poem "Sing a Song of Cities" shows our hero sitting atop one of the gargoyles on the Chrysler Building, various buildings and bridges visible in a sea of mist below. The pictures then swoop down to look up at tall construction or grow intimate with a New Orleans jazz band. Hall has a firm grasp on the logistics of picture books too. The poem "Subways Are People" cleverly angles the image so that the center of the subway car disappears into the gutter of the book. This is almost mimicked later when the poem "City Lights" takes us to Tokyo, and a strange mix of English and Japanese signs all converge into the center of the crazed and city-fast page. There’s an almost 50s vibe to some of these images (particularly "City Lights") but it never jars or feels antiquated. Instead, it comes off as feeling classic.
Hall has taken time to figure out what aspects of each city define it. New York is privy to skyscrapers. Chicago to the ‘L’. San Francisco the bridge. Unless you were looking for it, you wouldn’t realize that Mr. Hopkins hasn’t identified the places himself. No writing does, aside from the maps. As such, parents will be able to teach kids about each city and how you would go about discovering it. What makes the poem "Kite" a particularly Cairo-esque two-page spread? What is there about the picture that makes you think "Egypt"? That makes for an excellent interactive aspect of the book. One other interactive aspect is a nice Where’s Waldo-type twist. A small bird (which I have dubbed a pigeon due to that particular fowl’s propensity for city living) is found near the dog in almost every picture. So even if kids are drawn to the language or interested in identifying each place, they can at least dig the groovy Find the Pigeon game here.
It is said that publishers are wary of putting out books that are too distinctly New York, for fear that people around the country will opt out of purchasing something so specific. What "City I Love" has going for it is the fact that it isn’t set in a single sphere. A whole bunch of cities get their say. For the kid that lives in the city and can’t get enough of them, and the kid who lives somewhere rural and is fascinated by the thought of so many people in such small spaces, City I Love is a treat. Soft and sweet, the book says it best. "Sing a song of cities. / If you do, / Cities will sing back. / Cities will sing back / to you."
On shelves now.
Other Blog Reviews:
- A brilliant examination from Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
- Treat Those Two Imposters Just the Same
- Check It Out
- Kid’s Book Blog
- lost in place
- A Patchwork of Books
- The Write Sisters
Other Online Reviews:
- Without a doubt, before you do anything else, I simply insist that you read this interview with Marcellus Hall about the book (and his life) over at Mishaps and Adventures. Read it, if for nothing else, because it includes the interview question I will HAVE to start using when I speak to people, "what was one of the oddest requests or changes you were asked to make?" You can also see original sketches for the book.
- It’s Poetry Friday, of course, of course. Be sure to pop on over to Crossover for the round-up.
- A simultaneous review and interview with Mr. Hopkins about the book over at Poetry for Children. Also includes a mini-guide of five activities to do with the book.
- And finally, I ripped this off of Chad’s interview, but how often do illustrators also record their own solo albums? Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to fall in love.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.