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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Dark Emperor: Jonathan’s Take

With our actual mock Newbery discussion just around the corner, we now consider the merits of the only book left on our shortlist that we haven’t discussed in depth yet: DARK EMPEROR.  Joyce Sidman has kindly granted us permission to examine a couple of her poems here, and the one I have chosen is “Night-Spider’s Advice.”


Build a frame

and stick to it,

I always say.

Life’s a circle.

Just keep going around.

Do your work, then

sit back and see

what falls in your lap.

Eat your triumphs,

eat your mistakes:

that way your belly

will always be full.

Use what you have.

Rest when you need to.

Dawn will come soon enough.

Someone has to remake

the world each night.

It might as well be you.

The spider speaks in pithy aphorisms that are delivered in a staccato rhythm because of the line breaks.  These aphorisms take on a new light after the sidebar on the opposite page has been read.  What on first reading appeared to be metaphorical can now be read quite literally.  Thus, there is an interesting intertextuality happening between the poetry and the sidebar.

Each and every poem in this book has a similarly perfect marriage between form and voice and subject.  Each and every poem offers up a perfect blend of intelligence and curiosity and humor.  The language sings–sings on the first read, and sings on the tenth–and never stops singing.  And the sidebars are concise, lucid, and engrossing.

Someone has to win the Newbery Medal, Joyce Sidman.  It might as well be you.

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. You know, I am a huge Joyce Sidman fan (“Ubiquitous” is one of my favorite children’s books ever, the perfect combination of art, poetry, and science), but “Dark Emperor: didn’t whisper “Newbery” to me. Some of the poems did – but the others were just interesting, not outstanding.

    And I know we’re not supposed to consider the art, but although Emperor is beautifully illustrated, I just don’t like Rick Allen’s work as much as Becky Prange’s, and I can’t help mentally comparing them.

    I really liked the last sentence of your review, though.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I like UBIQUITOUS a lot, too. I do like Prange’s illustrations and agree that they are more eye-catching than Allen’s, but I like the poetry in DARK EMPEROR slightly better, and I think the thematic focus is tighter. Both books got five starred reviews, but UBIQUITIOUS has made three best lists so far, while DARK EMPEROR has not made any. Three more lists to go–Horn Book, Booklist, and Bulletin. The thing I’ve always noticed about collections, whether stories or poetry, is that the ones I think are strong, somebody else thinks are weak, and vice versa.

  3. Nina Lindsay says:

    I think the interesting distinction in comparing UBIQUITOUS and DARK EMPEROR is to look at them with the narrow focus of Newbery criteria, at which point the illustration and design fall away. I can see how a wider context would edge UBIQUITOUS up in preference, but I urge people to focus on the language in DARK EMPEROR. My favorite coming next!

  4. Hmm, I thought “hardy everyday survivors” or plant & animal (& fungi) “weeds” was more interesting and innovative as a theme than “night-time”. And I loved how human interaction with these species (and humans themselves) played an important role in the poems.

    Now I have to go back and re-read “Ubiquitous” and try to ignore the illustrations and layout and my preference for weeds and human ecology vs. nocturnal stories, and just try and concentrate on the language.

    Do you think this is a dark horse? It seems like it would be difficult to compare poetry to novels and nonfiction. I would love to see it win, even if I would pick ubiquity over the dark.

  5. Nina Lindsay says:

    Sandy, understand too that I don’t really have a huge argument for Dark Emperor over Ubiquitous…I think they’re both extremeley strong. Jonathan and I had to pick one, and we picked the one we thought we could utilize best for this discussion.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Yes, both DARK EMPEROR and UBIQUITOUS are very strong, and I’m surprised that the review journals have picked one or the other, but not both for their best of the year list (at least so far). I’d like to think they are both darkhorses, but to my mind, DARK EMPEROR stacks up the best against the Newbery criteria, but I think you can make a strong case for either book.

    I also think MIRROR, MIRROR might be a darkhorse, too. I indicated earlier that I think the form of the poems are distinguished, but not the language (especially when you compare the book to DARK EMPEROR and UBIQUITOUS in which both form and language are distinguished). However, I’m intrigued by a comment Roger Sutton made on his blog about considering MIRROR, MIRROR as an easy reader. Viewed in that light, one might say the simpler language is actually a strength for an emerging reader. Something to think about.

  7. I’m really glad I don’t have to pick between “Conspiracy of Kings” and “Ubiquitous”. They’re both amazing, but so very, very different. Even after re-reading the Newbery criteria I’m truly stumped.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, as the saying goes. A collection (whether of stories or poems) is also only as strong as the weakest one. But in any given collection, I will find some strong, you will find others, but there may be some that none of us think are very strong. I’m not sure that DARK EMPEROR (or UBIQUITOUS) has any poems that no one would find strong, though. Last night, I went through the book to find mark the ones I was least impressed with. I noted “Oak After Dark” and “The Mushrooms Come,” but Nina then mentioned the former in a positive light, and somebody could quite possibly do the same for the latter. I just don’t think there’s a weak poem in the bunch (in either book).

    It is extremely difficult to compare these “apples” and “oranges,” but we can always ask: Does this approach the standard of perfection in oranges better than that approaches the standard of perfection in apples? And by this measure, DARK EMPEROR is as good as any book on our shortlist.

    The one area that DARK EMPEROR is most distinguished–second to none–is in its use of language. So very, very impressive.

  9. Mark Flowers says:

    “The one area that DARK EMPEROR is most distinguished–second to none–is in its use of language. So very, very impressive.”

    I haven’t even read Dark Emperor yet, so I can’t comment on the merits, but I’m just curious as to the reasoning for this statement. It seems like another case of apples and oranges: can we really compare in a direct way how distinguished the use of language is in a book of poems vs. a prose novel? It seems like we have to take very different criteria into account as to how each uses language. What do you think?

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think each genre tends to have different strengths. We expect strong settings from historical fiction. We expect good plots from mystery or fantasy. We expect a strong distinctive narrative voice from first person fiction. And we expect poetry to have excellent use of language. If these genres let us down in these regards, would we think they were distinguished at all? Probably not.

    I’ll admit that I may have overstated my case in an effort to provoke a response so let me amend my claim to say that I think DARK EMPEROR is as good as any other book in its use of stylistic language–and arguably better. So let’s play a little game. Here are two sentences from DARK EMPEROR.

    1. “O Dark Emperor / of hooked face and / hungry eye: turn that / awful beak away / from me; / disregard / the tiny hiccup / of my heart / as I flee.”

    2. “Now / it is midnight, / the trilling hour, / and all I want / is to feel the thick heat / on the hard case of my body / and sing, / sing, / til the branches tremble / and life / swells / to a single / searing, / unstoppable / sound.”

    Find a book that you think is distinguished for its use of stylistic language, and put its best two sentences up against these, and we’ll see how they compare. I do think there are books out there that can compete, but there are not many. I think AS EASY AS FALLING OFF THE EARTH would be one . . .

  11. Mark Flowers says:

    I think that’s fair enough – I just wanted to clarify whether you meant that poetry in general beats out prose for use of language, or that the specifically *excellent* poetry of Dark Emperor beats out the specific other prose candidates. In the latter case, again, I haven’t read all the poems in Dark Emperor, but I’ll take your word for it.

  12. I was just able to read Dark Emperor. It was lovely. I very much resent, however, that Sidman was able to write so beautifully about my arch gardening nemesis (and what prey tell is the plural there). Damn snails.

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