Cousins of Clouds: Elephant Poems
By Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
Illustrated by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
On shelves now
“Do you have any elephant books?” This is an easy one. The children’s librarian doesn’t have to think too hard about it. Just walk on over to the right section of the non-fiction, find the correct Dewey Decimal number, grab the books, and there you go. Happy kid. Happy librarian. Of course it’s not always that easy. Recently, and this is actually true, I’ve been encountering kids who want picture books about elephants. So my library whipped up an Elephant Picture Book List that includes all the great elephant related stories (Babar, Ella, Horton, Elephant and Piggie, you name it). It wasn’t until I got my digits on Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s latest book of poems Cousins of Clouds, though, that I realized that there’s a middle ground between these pachyderm-related sections. I mean, what if you have a kid that wants a picture book about elephants but also wants some facts along the way? Whither goes the librarian? Cousins of Clouds is sort of a little nonfiction/poetry godsend then. Chock full of interesting elephant facts as well as cool poems, the book bridges the gap between fiction and nonfiction beautifully.
It’s hard to wrap your head around an elephant, let alone your arms. Here we have creatures weighing between 6,000 and 16,000 pounds. Animals that sometimes starve in the streets of cities and sometimes visit the bones of their deceased. In twenty-five poems of varying lengths Tracie Vaughn Zimmer takes us into the world of the elephant. You’ll see them walking down streets with cars and appearing on art from a variety of countries. You’ll see how they care for their young or are incorporated into the body of Ganesh. Accompanying each poem is a small factual message that gives additional information about the elephants being discussed. The end of the book also contains a list of recommended books “For further elephant reading” if kids are interested in knowing more about these majestic, gigantic animals.
There is a trend these days to integrate different subject areas in schools and textbooks so that kids can see how everything is connected. So, for example, a fifth grader might be encouraged to read about the history of the Dust Bowl, read the novel Out Of The Dust, hear music from that time period, do a science experiment about soil erosion, and calculate the number of miles it would take to drive from Oklahoma to California. That way they get the full learning experience. The same might be done, I suspect, with books. Why stick to just one area of expertise (poetry or nonfiction) when you can work them in together? Now due to the fact that the word “poems” appears in the book’s title, I’ve no doubt in my head whatsoever that this book will pretty much just end up in library and bookstores’ poetry sections. That’s okay. The problem is that its lovely packaging gives no indication of the wealth of factual knowledge hidden between its covers. There’s a great deal to learn here and many facts that I’m sure even adults are unaware of. Did you know that due to their sensitive feet, elephants in Thailand in 2004 felt the tsunami coming and some took off for the high hills, saving the mightily confused (and lucky) tourists on their backs? Or that there’s an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee of a whopping 2,700 acres? Not I, said the fly.
Zimmer’s been doing this poetry thing for a while now. She started out slowly with verse novels sporting names like Sketches From a Spy Tree and Reaching for Sun. It was almost as if she was finding her footing before plunging into straight poetry head on. Her most recent book is Steady Hands: Poems About Work and this title wasn’t poetry in the guise of fiction, but straight out poetry poetry. From there she switched gears a bit and decided to concentrate on elephants. In it, Zimmer doesn’t limit herself to a single, static, poetic form. She plays with haikus, free verse, blues songs, and there’s even a poem (This is Just to Say”) that references the William Carlos Williams poem of the same name. There isn’t an obvious mention of Williams anywhere near the poem, but clever teachers would do well to write the two side-by-side in the classroom. There’s something infinitely amusing about pairing, “Forgive me / they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold” alongside the story of a trainer who had to trick an elephant into taking its medicine saying, “Forgive me; / they were bitter / but it was / for your own good.”
Interestingly, Zimmer begins the book with a poem that’s a fable (and the origin of the book’s title). After that, she transitions into factual poems that give information about elephants. I seriously doubt that any child, no matter how young and gullible, will honestly believe the story of winged elephants and how they lost their flight, but at the same time I found it interesting that Zimmer would begin with fiction for what is, for the most part, a factual book. It almost has the feel of an afterthought. As if the publisher thought that a book with plain old elephants on the cover wouldn’t be cool enough, so they cajoled her into telling a tale that would allow them to put winged pachyderms all over the jacket instead. I didn’t find it misleading exactly, but I do think that the cover of this book gives a false impression of its innards. What I love about it, after all, is how many facts Zimmer has managed to cram in here. However, if I were judging on cover alone I might have passed this pretty book by, assuming that it was a book of faux elephant snakes, elephant birds, elephant butterflies, you name it.
If the names Megan Halsey and Sean Addy ring a slightly muffled bell in the back of your brain’s memory banks, that may be because you’ve seen their work on Zimmer’s aforementioned title Steady Hands. I confess that theirs is not a style I instantly gravitate towards. Mixed media collage and I have a rocky friendship. That said, there are times when Halsey and Addy really capture the true essence of one of Zimmer’s poems. In “Grace” we read about elephants in a circus ring from the point of view of an audience member. Says the book, “The jewels around the elephant’s face / flash in the colored lights, / but the ginger jewel of her eye / haunts me, / even in sleep.” The artists set this scene not amongst bright colorful lights, but rather against a blue background so deep it’s almost black. Out of this darkness the elephants walk forward. The one in the lead is walking out of the frame, but there’s just enough of it there so that you can see that ginger eye staring out at you. Suddenly it seems as though the elephant’s eye will haunt the dreams not just the person telling the tale, but the reader as well. Clearly these illustrators have a good feel for the material. Actually, it almost felt as though they got more inventive and creative as the book went on. Nothing against the early poems like “Accessory” or “Ivory” but I feel as though the art accompanying those pieces really can’t compare to the work on “Patience” or “Memory”. Stick with the book then and you’ll see how far it takes you.
Out of curiosity I tried to see if I could find any other all-elephant all-the-time poetry books for kids out there. Insofar as I can tell, they are few and far between. That isn’t to say there aren’t titles out there that wouldn’t pair beautifully with Zimmer’s book, of course. One might consider pulling out Julie Hofstran Larios’s colorful Yellow Elephant: A Bright Bestiary or even Jack Prelutsky’s whimsical Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems. But for a unique combo of elephant poems and facts about the lovable critters, I’ve never seen the like to compare with Zimmer’s newest offering. Ah, if only our poetry and nonfiction intersected more often. At least we’ve something for the young elephant lovers of the world now. Lucky them.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Other Blog Reviews:
Misc: Read the first poem in its entirety over at Gotta Book.
The book trailer.