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Review of the Day: Hypnotize a Tiger by Calef Brown

HypnotizeTiger1Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems About Just About Everything
By Calef Brown
Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt (an imprint of Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9928-7
For ages 9-12

Why do I do this to myself? Let me tell you something about how I review. Board books? Pshaw. I can take one and write a nine-paragraph review parsing precisely why it is that Bizzy Bear’s preferred companions are dogs and bunnies. Nonfiction? Lay it on me. I’ll take infinite pleasure in discussing the difference between informational texts when I was a child (long story short, they sucked) and our current golden age. But there is one book genre that lays me flat. Stops me short. Makes it exceedingly difficult for me to get my head in order. Truly, children’s poetry books are the hardest to review. I don’t know exactly why this is. They are the most unloved of the books for kids. No American Library Association accredited awards are made specifically for them. They get checked out of libraries one month a year (April = National Poetry Month) and then lie forgotten. Yet so many of them are bite-sized wallops of greatness. Hypnotize a Tiger by Calef Brown is one of these chosen few. Not many poetry books for kids sport blurbs from Daniel Pinkwater (who found a soul mate in Brown’s art) to Jack Gantos to The Book of Life director Jorge R. Gutierrez. And few author/illustrators are allowed to go as positively wacky and wild as Brown does here. From tomato ultimatums and loofah tortes to velocipede odes and dodgebull (rather than dodgeball) you honestly never know where the book is going next. And you’re grateful for it.

So if it’s so great (and it is) why is reviewing a book of this sort the devil to do? There are any number of reasons. When reviewing a book with, say, a plot, it’s awfully easy for me to merely recap the plot, dish on the characters, bring up some single strange or scintillating point, then close it all down with a conclusion. Easy peasy. But poetry’s not really like that. There’s no plot to Hypnotize a Tiger. There’s not even a running gag that keeps cropping up throughout the pages. Each poem is its own little world. As a result, I’m stuck generalizing about the poems as a whole. And because we are dealing with 84-85 (depending on how you count) of them in total, I’m probably going to end up saying something about how some of the poems work and others don’t. This is kind of a cheat when you’re reviewing a collection of this sort because almost no children’s poetry book is absolutely perfect (Example A: The fact that Shel Silverstein wrote “Hug-a-War” . . . I rest my case). They will always consist of some verses that work and others that do not. In the end, the best I can hope for when reviewing poetry is to try to find something that makes it different from all the other poetry books published in a given year. Fortunately for me, Mr. Brown is consistently interesting. As Pinkwater said in his blurb, “He is a bulwark against mediocrity.”

HypnotizeTiger2I’m very interested in the question of how to get kids around to reading poetry. My own daughter is four at this time and we’ve found that Shel Silverstein’s poetry books make for good bedtime reading (though she’s still thrown off by the occasional grotesquerie). For many children, Silverstein is the gateway drug. But Calef Brown, though he swims in Shel’s surrealism soaked seas, is a different breed entirely from his predecessor. Where Shel went for the easy silly ideas, Brown layers his ridiculousness with a bit of sophistication. Anyone could write a poem about waking up to find a beehive attached to the underside of their chin. It takes a Calef Brown to go one step further and have the unfortunate soul consider the monetary implications. Or to consider the verbal capabilities of Hoboken-based gnomes. So Hypnotize a Tiger becomes a book meant for the kid with a bit of prior poetry knowledge under their belt. You wouldn’t hand this title to a reluctant reader. You’d give it to the kid who’d already devoured all the Silverstein and Prelutsky and came to you asking, “What else you got?” That kid might be ready.

It is useful to note that you need to read this book aloud as well. There should be a warning sticker on the cover that says as much. Not that Brown makes it easy for you. Take the poem “Hugh”, for example. Short and simple it reads, “Meet my Belgian friend / He lives near Bruges, on a farm. / His name is Hugh Jarm.” Then at the bottom one of the tiny interstitial poems reads, “I once had a dream I was visiting Bruges – / snacking on chocolates while riding a luge.” Now the correct pronunciation of “Bruges” isn’t really necessary in the first poem, though it helps. The little tiny poem, however, is interesting because while it works especially well when you pronounce it correctly, you could probably mangle the wordplay easy peasy and still end up with a successful poem. SLJ probably said it best when they mentioned in their review of the book that, “Though there is more than one line that does not roll easily off the tongue and awkward rhymes abound, it is easy to see this clumsiness as part of the spirit of the collection.”

HypnotizeTiger3The subtitle of the collection is “Poems About Just About Everything” and that’s a fairly accurate representation. It does not mean, however, that there isn’t an internal logic to what’s being included here. There’s a chapter of animal poems, of people, insects, vehicles, schools, food, and then more esoteric descriptions like “Facts Poetic”, “Word Crashes”, and “Miscellaneous Silliness.” No poem directly applies to another, but they still manage to work together in tandem fairly well.

I don’t think it’s a serious criticism of a book to say that it’s not for all audiences. Calef Brown is an acquired taste. A taste best suited to the cleverest of the youngsters, absolutely, but acquired just the same. Not everyone is drawn to his style, and more fool they. To my mind, there is room enough in this world for any Calef Brown collection you can name. This book doesn’t have the widely popular feel of, say, a We Go Together but nor is the author writing poems simply to hear himself speak. Hypnotize a Tiger is a book built to please fans of creative curated silliness. Don’t know if you’ll like it? There’s only one way to find out. Pick this puppy up and read it to a kid. The book may surprise you (and so might the kid!).

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.