There’s been a lot of discussion lately about getting guys to read. Little guys, that is. The figuring is that if you don’t rope boys into the wild world of books while they’re young, you may lose them entirely once they’ve passed the point of no return (say, seventeen or so). So all sort of initiatives have sprung up with dudes in mind. An entire cottage industry, you might say, has surrounded the publication of male-centric fare, and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point you hear about a Get a Boy To Read Day on the horizon. Into this atmosphere drops a little book by Bob Raczka and Peter H. Reynolds called Guyku. From that title you don’t have to be an English major to figure out what it contains. High-interest boy-friendly fare is all the rage but few titles have attempted to dip such a blatant toe into the world of poetry. Raczka and Reynolds do it together with good poetry and good pictures.
If haiku has a tendency to synthesize the natural world into single lines of pure, clean thought, then how might that format be used to convey all the fun to be had when playing in that world? Guyku travels through the four seasons to conjure up old truths, new ideas, and classic bits of seasonal revelry. From sword fighting with icicles to skipping stones to raking leaves over your brother, Raczka has his finger firmly lodged on the pulse of what it is to be a kid growing up. And for his own part, Peter H. Reynolds stops the book from sounding like mere nostalgia by complementing the title with his contemporary (but still somehow classic) watercolor illustrations.
You know, I might take issue with the subtitle. The full title of this book reads Guyku: A Year of Haiku for Boys. Here’s my thinking. I don’t think of “guys” as necessarily a male term. There are plenty of tomboy girls out there who’d rather swim a stream and find a snake than play pretty pretty princess with their fellows. And sure, all the guys featured in this book are boys, but if you specifically say that these poems are solely “for Boys” that sort of limits your audience. To my mind, Guyku is better labeled as “A Year of Haiku for Guys”. It’s repetitive, but also a little more inclusive. After all, many a boy-hating girl now will avoid this book like the plague if she thinks its solely boy-centric fare is rife with nasty boy cooties. Her loss.
I think I was a little surprised when I started reading this book and found its content to be different from my expectations. I walked into it, so to speak, with the assumption that these poems would be just mischief-based. I didn’t expect the contemplative tone that would concern the patient damming of a stream with stones or the perfect climbing height of a pine tree’s boughs. Once in a while I saw what I expected to see (as in the poem “If this puddle could / talk, I think it would tell me / to splash my sister”) but it’s rare. In his afterword, titled “Why I wrote Guyku”, Raczka talks about how nature made up a significant part of his play when he was a kid. Then he points out that haiku is the ideal male poetic form. Says he, “they’re written in the present tense. In other words, whatever happens in a haiku, it’s happening right now. From my experience, guys are always interested in what’s happening right now.” So there you go.
The distinctive style of Peter H. Reynolds works so well with the individual poems in this book that I found myself poring through his back catalog of titles just to see if he’d illustrated a collection of poems before. The closest thing I could find at this point was his work on the 35th Anniversary Edition of that great Marlo Thomas classic Free to Be You and Me. It’s strange that he hasn’t done more along these lines since it’s clear the man has a knack for it. Or maybe it’s just the fact that haiku suits him well. With short little poems, Reynolds is able to weave his multicultural offering of guys in and out and around the brief darts of poetry. He keeps his watercolors significantly subdued as well. Spring is privy to small splashes of green, summer has yellow, fall brown, and winter blue. Reynolds offers little clues within his palette as well. Look at the title page and you’ll see four dots below the title, one for each seasonal color. Now flip to the end and you’ll see a group of three boys, arms about one another, walking in a field with all the colors from the seasons surrounding them. It’s subtle, but it’s there.
It’s not as if there isn’t a lot of great poetry for “boys” out there anyway. I mean if Shel Silverstein is anything, he’s the king of the gross, extreme, and bizarre. Jack Prelutsky follows close behind with other books like Technically It’s Not My Fault waiting in the shadows. Guy poetry is everywhere. And traditionally, girls dig these poems just as much as dudes do. We’ll just have to wait and see if their instincts allow them to get a whiff of some of Raczka’s poems, in spite of the lurking subtitle. When Poetry Month rolls around and classes of kids everywhere are told to conjure up haikus of their very own, I do have a hope that Guyku will find its way into the hands of kids looking for a little inspiration. It’s hard to read this book and not want to write a few lines of contemplative multi-syllabled poetry yourself. And alongside books like Charlotte Zolotow’s Seasons and John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar, this is one of the best seasonal books of poems for kids I have had the pleasure to read. A worthy addition to their ranks.
On shelves October 4th.
Source: F&G sent for review from publisher.