I have a colleague who is mighty careful when regarding haiku. She’s Japanese-American herself, and one thing she simply cannot stand is when someone takes a set of words, slaps them into five/seven/five syllable lines, and then calls the result “a haiku”. Traditional haiku focuses on nature and how we, as humans, relate to it. So what happens when 5/7/5 gets taken out of the equation entirely? Author/illustrator Jon J. Muth is no stranger to children’s picture books that challenge the reader. And though he’s written many a book touching on the concept of “Zen”, straight up poetry has rarely been his bag. All that changes with the publication of Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons. Gutsy in its quiet, contemplative way, Muth doesn’t follow the same old, same old poetry model. Maybe that’s part of the reason I like it so very much.
Twenty-six haikus spotlight four different seasons. In the book, a panda cub named Koo and two human siblings explore fall, winter, spring and autumn in a myriad of different ways. From a snowball on a stop sign (“are we in trouble?”) to act of accidentally killing a bug (“afterward / feeling alone and Sad”) the haikus do double duty as both poems and, depending on which word is capitalized, a tour of the alphabet. Inspired by his own young twins, Muth, with seeming effortlessness, brings to young readers a fellow traveler.
Poetry is dead. I’m sorry. That sounds a bit bleak. Allow me to rephrase that sentence. Poetry for children is dead. Nope . . . nope that still sounds bleak, doesn’t it? Well it’s not true anyway . . . yet. But you see I’ve been watching the number of works of poetry published for kids the last few years and I swear that each season we get fewer and fewer and fewer. I believe a combination of different factors is to blame. On the one hand, poetry doesn’t hold a spot of honor in some curriculum anymore and it’s not every school that has their kids memorize a whole poem these days. Add in the fact that the American Library Association presents no official award for a work of children’s poetry and the fact that a GOOD book of poetry is insanely hard to write and you’ve a decrease in the number being published every year. So imagine my relief when I discovered that Muth had thrown his hat in the ring. Haiku? I’ll take it! Whatever you’ve got, man. Lay it on me.
Not that I was initially on board with the come-as-you-are attitude towards syllables in this book. Not at first. It took a careful reading of Muth’s Author’s Note (which thankfully is the first thing you read in the book) before I truly understood what was going on. As he explains, the original Japanese haiku is made of seventeen sound parts called “on”. But English syllables and “on” aren’t equivalent to one another. “Over time, haiku has evolved, so that many modern poets no longer adhere so rigidly to this structure.” Taking his cue, Muth strives to capture sensory images in his poems. “At its best, a haiku embodies a moment of emotion that reminds us that our own human nature is not separate from all of nature.” And heck, it’s not even as if Muth is the first guy in the world to ignore the now standard English syllabic scheme. Poet Harold G. Henderson went so far as to make his haikus rhyme. How’s that for originality?
Does that mean that the book will have limited use in schools? Yeah, well maybe, but enterprising teachers will still find it to be amongst the best there are. Plus, as I say, it’s not like poetry’s getting as much play as it deserves these days. If the teacher insists on 5/7/5, there are lots of other books out there to choose from. And there may be objections even still from folks who adhere to the original definition of what a Haiku constitutes. For some, Haiku is a kind of basis for mediation as it applies to Zen philosophy. Yet even there, Muth tips his hat. Note the final page. There, in the dying twilight of a summer night, seated on a tree branch with a cardinal’s nest perched on his head, we hear Koo’s final poem. “becoming so quiet / Zero sound / only breath.” As Haikus for kids go, this is as Zen as it gets.
So let’s ask the million-dollar question here. If Muth knows his Haiku history, does he follow its form? Which is to say, does each poem that he writes discuss nature or the seasons and how they relate to kids? Well, yes and no. With a regular cast of characters, these haikus tell a story together. One such poem reads, “Friend, is that you / knocking at the door? / TWO!” Look at the image and you see two heavily bundled kiddos standing outside Koo’s door, eager for him to play with them in the wintery white. Can an illustration play a part in conveying a seasonal aspect of a poem when the words in the poem itself do not? No idea, but if so then Muth’s in the clear.
Though it’s beautiful from start to finish, I think I should probably point out that this is a really fun, funny, amusing, infinitely readable book as well. My own copy was sitting on my dining room table when my two-year-old spotted it and started insisting I read her “the picture book”. I did and she got a real kick out of it (though the image of eyes gone square from too much TV kind of gave her the jim jams). As someone who purchases books for my library system it made me a little sad that I’ll be cataloging this book in the poetry section and not the picture book section. Sitting next to fellow Muth creations Zen Ties, Zen Shorts and Zen Ghosts I’d be able to guarantee its circulation. In poetry it’ll be a harder sell, but I’m willing to put it there if it lures Muth fans to the world of poem and verse.
When a form of poetry is also a form of philosophy, you are naturally going to have some folks a bit peeved by its appropriation. By the same token, appropriation is the nature of art in America. I think perhaps it will be more likely that certain gatekeepers (teachers, parents, librarians, etc.) will find Muth’s refusal to toe the line and go 5/7/5 with his syllables far more of an annoyance. Consider the man’s justifications and ask yourself what truly is more important in a haiku. Is it form or is it feeling? April is Poetry Month and in an era of blackout poems, spine poetry, reversos, and whatever it is Bob Raczka was doing in Lemonade (is there even a term for it?) we can afford to shake things up for our kids a little. Give haiku back its gravitas, and give your kids a book that also happens to be really fun (not to mention beautiful) as well.
On shelves February 25th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Guyku by Bob Raczka, ill. Peter Reynolds
- Seasons by Charlotte Zolotow
- Red Sings From Treetops by Joyce Sidman
- Firefly July by Paul B. Janeczko, ill. Melissa Sweet
Other Blog Reviews: Mundie Kids
Misc: It’s Poetry Friday, you lovely lads and lasses! Head on over to No Water River for the round-up.