Monday, April 14, 2014

"Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night"

            I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.  This is the mantra I am going to repeat to myself over and over again, through April, into the summer, and until the school year starts again.  It is like every year I forget about poetry until National Poetry Month arrives.  I am aware that poetry needs to be across the curriculum all year long, and Georgia Heard is seriously disappointed in me, but there is always so much going on that poetry takes a back seat.  This summer, I am determined to cultivate a supply of fantastic poems that I can enjoy and use with my children.  Dark Emperor by Joyce Sidman, has reminded me of the power of poems and how important it is to not let poetry be simply a genre that is studied.

            Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night (Published 2010) is a hybrid book of poems and
nonfiction text written by Joyce Sidman and illustrated by Rick Allen.  At first glance, this book may not seem that special.  It is a typical 32-page picture book, like any other one a child might pick up off the library shelf.  This book gives us two parts on each opening: a poem on the left, and nonfiction information on the right.  The topic, the night and the animals that transverse it, is not anything terribly unique.  When you stop and look at the cover, though, you realize that there is a Newbery Honor sticker affixed to the front cover.  If you are like me, you stop and think about that for a second.  The Newbery Award is intended for children up to the age of 14, and most of the books that win, like The Graveyard Book and Walk Two Moons, are chapter books for children in upper-elementary and middle school.  So what makes this book so special that it was named one of the best books of the year?

I felt like a porcupette picture was completely necessary.
There are many things that make this text wonderful, but I think the first thing that a reader will probably notice is the structure.  I have never come across a book quiet like this, that has a beautifully crafted poem (don’t worry, we’ll get to the author’s craft of this text) on one side, and then research on the other.  There are poetry books and then there are research books.  These two genres do not often step on one another’s toes.  Research isn’t poetic, thoughtful, or interesting, right?  Poetry isn’t all that well-researched, because it is just about feelings, right?  Joyce Sidman shows us that we are so wrong.  The research that Joyce Sidman presents is fascinating, and I actually learned a few things from this book.  For example, on page 19 we learn that “A baby porcupine—called a porcupette—spends the day hidden under a stone or log while its mother sleeps on a branch above.”  I had never given much thought to a baby porcupine, and the knowledge presented in the research perfectly supplements the information that is given in the poem.  The poem, “I Am a Baby Porcupette,” begins with the following lines:

            I am a baby porcupette.
            My paws are small; my nose is wet.
            And as I nurse against my mom,
            We mew and coo a soft duet.

Joyce Sidman blends the research into the poems, but then gives the reader additional information on the right hand side of the page.  I love that the poems come first.  The poems, like all good poems, speak to the reader.  Like in the example above, these poems do not shirk from emotion.  Instead, the reader is first brought into the information through the lens of poetry, only to then have it supported by the research.  We first reach the information on an emotional level, before we go back to slightly more clinical.
            Another reason this book is such a wonderful children’s poetry book is because it doesn’t dumb down poetry for children.  These poems are sophisticated, interesting poems and elementary school children can certainly handle them.  Joyce Sidman does not shy away from powerful words and deep thoughts, like when she describes on page 8 a snail as:

            Gleaming silver-bright.
            Each night:
A child needs to really think about what this means.  What does is mean that a snail is a moon maker or goes from darkness into light each day?  Together, children and teacher, child and parent, can ponder over the choices she makes and the images that are placed in their heads as they read the text.  The very first poem, “Welcome to the Night” is probably my favorite one.  The language used paints such a great image in my mind of night approaching and all the animals who will be coming.  She says, “To you who make the forest sing, who dip and dodge on silent wing”(p.6) and later, “The night’s a sea of dappled dark, the night’s a feast of sound and spark, the night’s a wild, enchanted park”(p.6).  I love any author who can take something so seemingly simple, like night, and talk about it in a unique way.

            Kids tend to love poems that rhyme, but we must also expose them to other poetry forms.  A lot of times, poetry books tend to be one thing—haiku, rhyming, un-rhyming, concrete, or some other type of poetry.  In Dark Emperor, Joyce Sidman gives us a variety of poems.  The first poem, “Welcome to the Night,” contains rhymed couples, like “Come feel the cool and shadowed breeze, come smell your way among the trees.”  In “Night-Spider’s Advice,” the reader is given one unrhymed stanza, containing lines like, “Someone has to remake the world each night.  It might as well be you.”  There is even a concrete poem, “Dark Emperor,” that is in the shape of a great horned owl and the mouse that is running away from it.  Because this book has such great language, research, and many different forms, it makes it a great mentor text for poetry.

            Reading this book as a reader, I automatically had my teacher hat on.  Last fall, I went to the Joy of Children’s Literature Conference, where two speakers presented on this book.  I remember listening to them and thinking this sounded like a great book, but I stored it in the back of my head and didn’t really think about it again until this week.  I guess I am kind of cruel to poetry in that way.  Now, I am thinking about the cross-curricular ties that this book has, and how wonderful it could be to use and re-use and abuse it until you have to buy a new one.  I’d love to start out our animal unit in science next year by turning off the lights, and in the best voice I can muster, read this poem to the students.  I can see how excited they would be, with this great invitation to learn about the animals that live in our world.  We could read the entire book, stopping to pause and think about all of the new information that we learned.

            After this introduction in science, we could read the book again as writers, looking at things like author’s craft.  I can just imagine starting a chart where we notice powerful words like “gleaming,” “dappled,” and “raucous.”  We could talk about poetic form and the different kinds of poems that Joyce Sidman includes.  At the conference I attended, the authors talked about students beginning to notice powerful words in nonfiction texts.  If we help children to see the connection between this book and other nonfiction books, then we will help them to build the bridge in their own writing.  If we show them nonfiction that isn’t sterile, dry writing, it will help them to create the kind of writing we have always hoped for them.  I think that this book could quite possibly be the best mentor text ever for writing nonfiction.  This is the kind of thing our kids could have in their reach, if only we show them how.

            I cannot end this review without talking about the prints.  When you first look at them, you can tell that something just seems different.  They don’t quite look like watercolors, pastels, or any other very traditional kind of illustration.  I immediately thought that they were woodcuts, and it turns out that I was right.  If there is ever a medium that should be appreciated, it is woodcuts.  In the front matter, the illustrations are explained.  It says:

The prints in this book were made by the process of relief printing.  A drawing or sketch is transferred onto a block of wood, or in this instance, a sheet of linoleum mounted on wood, and the drawing is then cut and carved away using a variety of tools.  The areas left uncut are covered with ink and printed on paper by hand or on a press: a number of blocks can be cut and then successively printed in different colors, with the different blocks being “registered” or aligned to create a multicolored print.  The prints for Dark Emperor were each printed from at least three blocks (and in some instances as many as six) and then hand-colored with a strongly pigmented watercolor called gauche.  There are definitely faster methods of making a picture, but few more enjoyable in a backwards sort of way.

Example of the relief printmaking used in the book.
Wow.  It sounds so complicated, and I honestly had a hard time picturing the process.  MoMA has created a very short video that shows relief printmaking at work, and it may help you to get a better understanding of the process.  Have you ever heard of any work more laborious than that of a woodcut?  You think to yourself, why in the world would the illustrator do that?  When I look at these woodcuts though, they take me away from reality a little bit.  Joyce Sidman is giving us a world that seems distant from our own, a world that is full of darkness and a little bit scary.  These woodcuts are also full of darkness and a little bit scary, like the giant spider on p.17.  These laborious prints match the text.

            So, to conclude, I will keep Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night in my mind, in my heart, and in my curriculum.  If you are a teacher, whether one of science, reading, or writing, I urge you to get this book and share it with your children.  And remember, I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.  I will not let poetry just be in April.
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