I believe that there are different muses of children’s literature. You have you Beautiful Spine muses, your Great Editor muses, your Awe-Inspiring Marketing muses, and your Copyediting Magnificence muses. Each one of these references those elements of the production of a book that authors and illustrators cannot wholly control. In terms of picture books, however, the greatest muse of all these, the big mama muse on high, would have to be the Serendipity Muse. This is the muse that pairs great authors with great illustrators to produce books of unparalleled beauty. And as I see it, poet Joyce Sidman and artist Beckie Prange must have independent alters dedicated to this muse tucked in a back corner of their gardening sheds or something. How else to explain their slam bang pairing? Besides a clever editor, of course. I mean first we saw them working together on Song of the Water Boatman and Other Pond Poems, which immediately went on to win a highly coveted Caldecott Honor. Now this year we get to see their newest collaboration Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors. Much like Water Boatman this new pairing combines factual information with poems and pictures, but its focus is entirely different. And, of course, it’s an equal pleasure to both ears and eyes. The muse knows her stuff.
“Ubiquitous (yoo-bik-wi-tuhs): Something that is (or seems to be) everywhere at the same time.” Imagine having to select those denizens of earth that at one time or another were or are ubiquitous. The species that have managed to stay in existence long after most have gone extinct. It can’t be easy but poet Joyce Sidman has her ways. In a series of fourteen poems she examines everything from the earliest bacteria on the globe to the very dandelions beneath our feet. Each subject gets a poem about its life and existence, and then Ms. Sidman provides accompanying non-fiction information about the subject. So in the case of coyotes, the poem “Come with Us!” is told in the voice of the coyotes themselves, urging others to “Come drink in the hot odors, / come parry and mark and pounce.” On the opposite page we then learn the Latin term for coyotes, how long they’ve been on this earth, their size, and any other pertinent information about them. Beckie Prange’s linocuts and hand-colored watercolors perfectly offset both the grandeur and the humor of Sidman’s work. A Glossary of terms can be found in the back.
Sidman’s poems could easily have all been the same format. They could have all had the same ABAB or AABB structure. Instead, they mix things up a bit. Here we can see concrete poems and poems that follow ABAB with AABB. And some, like the squirrel poem “Tail Tale” (which is my favorite in the book) don’t even rhyme. This constant change keeps readers interested. Then you start to get into the meat of the poems themselves. Sidman has to be factually accurate while also highlighting the thing about the organism or insect or fish or animal that she finds most interesting. That way her poem’s allusions can be more fully discussed in the accompanying non-fiction matter. That aforementioned squirrel poem, for example, manages to capture the essential cockiness of your average tree rodent. Near the end it reads, “hmmmm bigger brains versus tree- / top living with a free fur coat / and the ability to crack any / safe known to man now / really which would / you choose if you / actually had a/ choice which / you don’t?” Compare that to a previous and lovely poem about the diatoms of the sea. “Curl of sea- / green wave / alive / with invisible jewels / almost / too beautiful / to eat: / in each / crash, roar, / millions / more.” Evocative. Switching gears comes naturally to Ms. Sidman.
Let’s also talk structure. I’m a children’s librarian and as such I have certain practical concerns. Now this book, insofar as I can tell, was produced without a dust jacket. That is to say, the cover of the book doesn’t have anything protecting it. That means that libraries (like my own) aren’t going to feel obligated to paste down the bookflaps of the nonexistent jacket and this is a good thing because when you first open the book an image there immediately grabs your eye and requires you to see every last tiny detail. Humans, you see, have a hard time with the concept of time. Children in particular. For a kid, the months between Halloween and Thanksgiving can feel like an eternity. For an adult, they’re just a blink of the eye. So how do you go about conveying to a child the notion of how old the Earth is? Well, you do what Prange has done here. You set up a scale where “1 centimeter equals 1 million years”, and then fill your pages with kooky crazy meanderings of a line, back and forth, up and down, inside and outside, around and about. Always assuming your kid understands the concept of a million (Steven Kellogg can help them out if they don’t) these endpapers have the potential to blow your young `uns minds. Particularly when you see where Bacteria begins versus pretty much everything else.
Prange pairs her pictures together pretty well too. You can see on the endpapers a rollicking red ball that was the early Earth on the one end of the spectrum, and a cool green and blue ball on the other. This is mimicked in the text itself. On the title page is a hot red “Earth, newly formed, 4.6 billion years ago.” Flip to the end of the book and there’s the Earth again, once more on the left-hand page, opposite the Glossary of terms, now blue and green. It’s not something you’d necessarily catch on a first reading, but I like that Prange took the time to give this book a definite structure with a distinct beginning and end.
The relationship between the artist and poet interests me. Let’s take as our example the poem that accompanies information on Sharks. Now somebody decided to make the poem a concrete poem. That is to say, it’s a poem in the shape of a shark. Was it originally intended to even be a concrete poem or was this an inspiration of Ms. Prange? One has to assume that it was Ms. Sidman’s idea since the poem fits perfectly with each part of the shark. The “Finfinfinfin” is the fin. The “bristling teeth” creating the mouth. I bet you could argue both ways. Howsoever you look at it, what’s clear is that Prange and Sidman had to collaborate to a certain extent on the melding of text and image. So Sidman would write out the different stages of a dung beetle’s life and Prange would create eight separate circles of that same cycle. Sidman labels the parts of an anthill’s nest and Prange finds a way of drawing “grasshopper parts”. It’s a true collaboration. There’s a back and forth to this book that you don’t always feel in collections of poetry.
Of course all this begs the question of whether or not you consider this book to be a work of poetry or a work of non-fiction. Most will place it in their poetry collections, much as they did with Song of the Water Boatman, and I think that’s right. Still, it’s something to bear in mind when folks ask you to recommend a book with facts about ancient and contemporary life forms that seem to be, for lack of a better term, ubiquitous. It’s certainly a beautiful book, and will hopefully appeal to kids who are into facts as well as kids who are into poems. The rare double whammy. Hold on to it.
On shelves now.
Source: Reviewed from final copy borrowed from the library.
Other Blog Reviews:
- Pink Me
- Wild Rose Reader
- Story Sleuths
- Carrie’s Comfy Cozy Reading Nook
- Becky’s Book Reviews
- Sal’s Fiction Addiction
- Reading Ahead Journal
- Kids’ Brain
- Wild About Nature
- Joyce Sidman is interviewed over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.
- She also spoke on the Cybils blog.
- Would you like to booktalk this title? Then take some tips from Booktalk Three.
- Happy Poetry Friday! The Writer’s Armchair has the round-up.
- Download a Reader’s Guide of the book if you like.
- Also check out these awesome Ubiquitous links from Joyce Sidman’s website.
- Remember those crazy endpapers I mentioned? Well, if you want to get a glimpse of how Ms. Prange made them, the best place to go is (surprisingly enough) the Amazon page for this book. No lie! Check out how yarn was used to make the final result.
- There was also an article in School Library Journal about the book called It’s a Long Story.
And, naturally, it had a book trailer: