Stardines Swim High Across the Sky and Other Poems
By Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Carin Berger
Greenwillow Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
On shelves February 26th.
To non-children’s librarians the statistics are baffling. Your average poetry book isn’t exactly a circ buster. It sits on the shelf for months at a time, gathering dust, biding its time. When kids come to the reference desk to ask for titles, they don’t tend to ask for poetry unless they’ve some sort of assignment they need to fulfill. Yet for all that poetry books for kids are shelf sitters, it’s hard to find a single one that hasn’t gone out in the last two or three months. How to account for it? Well, there’s Poetry Month (April) to begin with. That always leads to a run on the 811 portion of the library shelves. But beyond that kids read poetry in dribs and drabs over the course of the year. Maybe as Summer Reading books. Maybe as class assignments. Whatever the reason, poetry has a longevity, if not a popularity, that’s enviable. Now Jack Prelutsky, our first Children’s Poet Laureate and creator of Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is following up his work with yet another delve into (in the words of Kirkus) “iambic ‘pun’tameter”. And while Prelutsky gives us a second round, illustrator Carin Berger steps up her game to give these hybrid birds and beasts a kick in the old artistic derriere.
Forget everything you ever knew about animals. Not since On Beyond Zebra has the world seen a menagerie quite as wild as the one on display here. Step right up, folks, and take a gander at the rare and remarkable Fountain Lion. “The only lions no one dreads, / They all have fountains on their heads.” Delicious crustaceans more your speed? Then come and observe the rare Slobsters. “Their sense of decorum / Is woefully small. / Slobsters don’t have / Many manners at all.” Or for the kiddies, how about an adorable Planda? “They plan to learn to roller-skate, / To juggle, and to fence. / They plan to go to clown school / And cavort in circus tents.” With his customary clever verse, Jack Prelutsky invents sixteen imaginary animals of varying degrees of odd. Accompanying his rhymes is his old partner-in-crime Carin Berger, who has moved beyond mere collage and has gone so far to construct elaborate shadow boxes of each and every poem. The end result is impressive, hilarious, and one of the most original little poetry collections you’ll see in many a year.
The shadow box, that staple of undergraduate art projects everywhere, is a relative newcomer to the world of children’s literature. A shadow box, once you’ve designed it and filled it with cool images, needs to be photographed perfectly if it’s going to work on a flat page. That means you need an illustrator confident in their abilities to produce art that will look as good in two dimensions as three. Berger is clearly up to the challenge. A master of collage, in this book she bends over backwards to make her images the best they can be. She’s very good at conveying distance. She also conveys perspective quite well. A cut image of a bicycle makes it appear to be three-dimensional because it is photographed from above. I know the image itself is just a flat piece of paper, but the illusion is complete. Everything, in fact, appears to have been planned with a meticulous eye.
Even within the boxes themselves Berger’s job is not easy. Consider an early poem called “Bluffaloes” which combines the word “Buffaloes” with the word “Bluff”. It’s about buffalo types who are scaredy cats should you call their bluff. Fair enough. Now how the heck do you illustrate that? In Berger’s case it looks like she may have considered an alternative definition of the word “bluff” as in “a cliff, headland, or hill with a broad, steep face” since her bluffaloes look like nothing so much as little pieces of a cliff running hither and thither on newly sprouted legs. Artistic creativity is much called for when wordplay is open ended.
Of course, as an adult I’m going to be naturally inclined towards artsy fartsy styles. But this all begs the obvious question: Will kids dig it? Well, let’s stop and consider for a moment. What precisely has Berger done? She has made little boxes and put action-packed scenes within them. Who else does that kind of thing? If you said, “Kids who make dioramas for school” you have earned yourself a cookie. Yes, it appears to me that Berger has taken one of the oldest homework assignments of our age and has turned it into a book. An enterprising teacher would find a goldmine of assignment material here. What if they had their kids write their own poems in Prelutsky’s style? What if they made pairs of kids come up with the idea for the poem and then one kid could write it while the other made a diorama to go with it? Can you now say, “instantaneous original poetry project for Poetry Month”? I knew you could.
Then there’s Prelutsky. He always scans. He always rhymes. And he throws in big words that will give some children a good dictionary workout. For example, in the Sobcat poem he writes, “The SOBCAT is sad / As a feline can be / And spends its time crying / Continuously. / It has no real reason / To be so morose. / It’s simply its nature / To act lachrymose.” Nice. Of course the unspoken secret to many of these poems isn’t that they simply make clever pairings of words and phrases with animals but that they say something about certain types of people. The Planda makes eternal plans and never carries them out. The Sobcat “delights / In its own misery”. You can find many a friend and a relation found in the animals of these pages.
The pairings of the poems is sometimes key. It works particularly well when you place the “Jollyfish” poem next to the “Sobcat”, for example. There are other moments when you suspect that the layout and order of the poems was a carefully thought out process. The book begins, for example, with the titular poem “Stardines” which comments that “In silence, these nocturnal fish / Are set to grant the slightest wish.” That’s a good note to begin on. The book then alternates between animals with physical attributes that are their primary lure and animals with one-of-a-kind personality quirks. It’s interesting to see how all this ends with, of all the animals, the Bardvark. “BARDVARKS think they’re poets / And persist in writing rhyme. / Their words are uninspired / And a total waste of time.” So it is that book of poetry for kids ends by highlighting an animal that’s an atrocious poet. The final lines, “Undeterred, they keep on writing / And reciting every day. / That’s why BARDVARKS are a problem – / You can’t make them go away.” One can’t help but think Prelutsky is taking a little jab at himself here. Not a significant jab, but small enough to allow him to laugh at himself a little. Not a bad way to finish, really.
Perhaps a key at the back of the book explaining which animals and concepts were combined would not have been out of place. I found myself baffled by the “swapitis” (pronounced swap-uh-teez) and found myself wishing I knew what animal it hailed from. It looks somewhat deer-like. After a bit of internet searching I discovered an animal called a wapitis, which is a kind of North American deer. Good to know, though I suspect it won’t immediately pop to many folks’ minds unless prompted and prodded a bit. Of course having kids find the animals referenced could be a fun homework assignment in and of itself. There are possibilities there. Just no answers.
Jack Prelutsky is a staple. Folks my age still associate him with The New Kid On the Block. Kids these days have a lot more Prelutskyian choices to pick from. Berger, in contrast, is new and fresh and bright and shiny. Combine the old school rhymes and chimes of a Prelutsky with the crackling energy and visual wit of Berger and you’ve got yourself a heckuva team. Stardines may tread familiar ground once trod before, but its method of presentation is anything but overdone. Hand this one to the kid who moans to you that they “have” to read a book of poetry for school. Who knows? It may hook ‘em before they realize what’s what. One of a kind.
On shelves February 26th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Carin Berger
- But Who Will Bell the Cats? by Cynthia von Buhler
- Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein, illustrated by Ed Young
- Steady Hands: Poems About Work by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer
Other Blog Reviews: Book Aunt
- Read this great little short interview with Ms. Berger at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast as she discusses how, “This seemed a perfect opportunity to reference my passion for wunderkammers and early science — and crusty old museums.”
- And here’s one shadow box that didn’t make the cut.
- It’s Poetry Friday! Head on over to Teaching Authors to see the round-up of other great poetry books of the day!
Take a studio tour into the world of Carin Berger to see some of the fantastic art from this book.