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Review of the Day: Up Verses Down by Calef Brown

Calef Brown gives me hope for the world.

A bold statement but not an inaccurate one. Bear with me on my reasoning on this one, because I think I’m on to something. First off, I want you to think long and hard about what the role of published children’s poetry is in the 21st century. How do publishers approach it? Do they think it sells? If so, who’s buying? It’s a funny question because aside from good old Poetry Month (a.k.a. April) poetry exists in this sort of nebulous state that’s neither here nor there. It has the ability to make you laugh or think or feel, but because its effect is so individualized, no two people can quiet agree on it. It’s like humor. It means something different to each person that encounters it. And yet, in spite of its peculiar status in the universe, we still get to read books by Calef Brown. Why is that? Why are we so lucky? How did it happen that Brown, whose poetry slots into none of the square or round holes out there, has made himself so indispensible on the children’s literary scene? I credit the fact that inside all of us there is a part that feels grateful that are privileged enough to live in a time when children can be exposed to nonsensical poetry that’s a cut above. Brown isn’t trying to conquer the universe by discussing cyclopses, seafood candy, and bandicoots. He just managed it anyway.

Fifty-four poems, of various shapes and sizes “widely range / from purely fun to very strange. / From ordinary reality / to total nonsensicality.” Calef Brown is your host and with his particular peculiar style he’s ready to wax rhapsodic on everything from dream machines and a guy named Sleepy LaFeete to ornery gnomes and space bakeries. Everything is up for grabs. An “Outro” (the opposite of an “Intro”) further challenges readers to THINK “like a poet-scientist”, MOVE “back and forth between drawing and writing”, RECALL “a cherished memory and write a poem about it,” WRITE “a tale in prose”, CHOOSE “an object to anthropomorphize”, COUNT “every syllable”, and finally COMPOSE “an ode to a family member or beloved pet”. Thick acrylics and gouache accompany each page.

Do I have a favorite poem in this book? I do. Is it a poem a kid would get? Maybe. Maybe not. Did it make me snort-laugh in a truly unappealing way when I read it? Yep. It is also short so I will type it out for you here, right now. It is called “Borscht”. Ahem. “Hopelessly lost / in the dreaded bog. / Blood red moon, / Crimson fog. / The air was like borscht. / This poem is the worscht. / The rhymes are forscht.” They say the quickest way to kill a joke is to dissect it, but let’s just take a moment here to recognize the glory of this thoroughly ridiculous piece. First off, props to Brown. The man really knows how to paint air that’s borscht-like. Next, for those of you who believe no child would get the joke because few are familiar with borscht, allow me to remind you that for a lot of kids, they learn new words by reading some pretty kooky stuff. Add in the fact that they’ll actually know how to pronounce “borscht” after reading this book, and I think my favorite poem has just revealed yet another use of this title. Above and beyond the usual perks, of course.

So I have this 8-year-old in my house. This 8-year-old likes books. Likes wordplay. But this 8-year-old would not normally gravitate to a book of poetry. I can read her Shel Silverstein, of course, and I’ve been meaning to grab I’m Just No Good at Rhyming by Chris Harris out of the library for her one of these days, but in general she wouldn’t self-identify as a poetry lover. No matter. I am sneaky and lucky (not necessarily in that order). Because I am constantly bringing children’s books home on a regular basis to review, it’s not surprising to her to see a big thick book of poetry like Up Verses Down sitting on the dining room table (a.k.a. the part of the house where all papers, books, magazines, etc. naturally gravitate). Now here’s where the sneaky part comes in. Casually at dinner I manage to mention one of the poems in conversation. Interest piqued, the kid and I look at that poem after the meal and, while we’re at it, I just happen to find some of the funny, clever ones near the front of the book. “Ayda”, “Rexx” and “Face It” are three poems on two pages that are your best bet for luring in potential readers. If you’re a children’s librarian and you choose to booktalk this title, consider this two-page spread as the one you show off. Whatever works, folks.

Now as with any collection, some of the poems work and some of them don’t. And what works for me might not work for you and what I think is inane you might think is brilliant. That’s the thing about darned poetry. It’s subjective. So is art, I suppose, but here I feel on steadier ground. I like Brown’s thick paints, and I like too the fact that the people in his pictures are an array of races, genders, and abilities. Brown will, more often than not, challenge himself to come up with art for poetry that can be difficult to visualize. “Simile Park”, for example, is a tricky one. But more and more as I read this book, I grew to love his landscapes. There’s the aforementioned “Simile Park” with its hazy pink/gray sky. There’s “The Ruby” with a winter landscape under a less than powerful orange sun. Maybe someday he’ll do a collection of more evocative pieces for the dreamy kids out there. Maybe.

Interestingly, a change appears to have been made for the book that I shouldn’t even know about, but now that I do I am sad. I received my copy of the book with some press materials stuck in the front. Normally I don’t pay as much attention to these materials, but something about this one caught my eye. It reads that “This book is powered by 100% natural POETROLIUM / A verse-based energy source (with verbal synergy, of course)”. Heh heh. Cute. Pretty clever too. I was surprised I hadn’t read something similar in the book itself. It was only when I looked again at my final copy that I realized that in the very back, in the “Author’s Note” there is something similar. Only it reads that, “This book runs on 100% natural POETRY POWER…” Now, I’m no poet. I’m no editor. I’m just a reviewer with an ear for a nice pun, and it seems to me that you had a real winner with “POETROLIUM”. Now there are two possibilities of what happened here. Either the book was submitted with that word and then someone at the publishing house got scared that readers wouldn’t like an energy conscious play on the word “Petroleum”, or there was a mix-up in the printing house and an early draft of the poem was accidentally submitted. I suppose that there’s a third possibility that it was only after the final manuscript was submitted that Brown realized that POETROLIUM was such a better word to use, and while they couldn’t update the book, they could the press materials. We will never know the reason, so as a favor to me, when you read this last poem to a kid, see if you can just work in the word “POETROLIUM” instead of the limp “POETRY POWER”. You’ll be glad you did.

As mentioned before, I’m no poetry expert. It’s sort of one of those genres I respect but find myself unable to “get” in the same way as other people. When I like poetry, I often like it for its wordplay and cleverness. That’s why Calef Brown is, to me, the patron saint of wackadoodle verse. Aside from his pun mastery, he just knows how to string together disparate thoughts and kooky lines. So find yourself a kid that likes the kind of book that can make them laugh and think at the same time. Hand them Up Verses Down. Watch them dip in and out, forget it, return to it, and over time these poems will sink down deep deep deep into the crevasses of their gray matter. By my thinking you can never have enough nonsense taking up residence in a human brain. This book just proves it.

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.

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