March 10, 2016
(++++) OLD IDEAS IN NEW FORMS
Picture This: Colors. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
Picture This: Numbers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
In the Land of Words: New and Selected Poems. By Eloise Greenfield. Illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Amistad/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Honey, I Love. By Eloise Greenfield. Illustrations by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Amistad/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Originally published in France in 2012, the Picture This board books, Colors and Numbers, look as fresh and inventive as possible in beautifully made English-language editions. Both are books about nature, using animals to illustrate their subject matter. Colors has a suitably bright and brilliant cover featuring a huge-eyed frog with green skin up top, white underneath, gigantic-for-its-size red eyes, and orange-and-green front toes. The title page is equally colorful, showing gorgeous blue, bright yellow, brilliant red, scintillating green and more – all of them colors sported by animals, and all of them highly attractive. The book’s text is extremely simple, as befits any board book, but especially one with such a strong visual focus. “Gray like this elephant in the savannah,” says one page, and “orange like this coral underwater” says another, and “turquoise like this octopus in sandy sea pebbles,” and so on. After showing creatures that are white, blue, yellow, black and other colors, the book concludes with a multicolored parrot’s wing and an invitation to find the colors not only of the feathers but also of all the world around, since “colors are everywhere!” Numbers proceeds similarly – here the same red-eyed frog appears as on the front and back covers of Colors, but in Numbers the frog shows up as the illustration of the number one. Then there are two owls, three bears, four zebras (an especially attractive photo, showing all four drinking at a water hole at the same time, while standing in nearly perfect formation), five ants, six lemurs – the mixture of common and less-familiar animals is as attractive as the photographs. Like most other counting books for young children, this one works its way up to 10, and that photo is a gem, showing a beige mother dog and nine solid black puppies, with a note that “dog families aren’t usually this large!” The final photo here is even more delightful: a two-page spread of sheep, showing only their woolly tops, backs and sides – except for a single sheep that looks right out at the reader. The book invites kids to count the sheep, which will be no small task – but which should add to the pleasures of a book whose visual focus makes its teaching about counting all the more enjoyable.
The enjoyment is more modest but equally well-intentioned in new paperback editions of two thin (+++) books featuring poetry by Eloise Greenfield. In the Land of Words, which originally dates to 2004, starts with the author explaining that she likes to imagine just such a land, which she makes the subject of the first short poem here. The modest scope of the poems in this book makes them easy to read, while Greenfield’s short introductory remarks help explain the poems’ genesis. There is true collaboration here between Greenfield and Jan Spivey Gilchrist, especially in a poem called “Flowers,” inspired by a Gilchrist drawing and Gilchrist’s request for poetry about stepfathers. What resulted was a nine-line poem that concludes, “My stepfather brought me flowers, and I/ pretended there wasn’t a tear in his eye,/ flowers and happiness tied with a bow,/ because I had just sung my first solo.” The lines’ rhythm does not always scan – as in those final two – but the sentiments Greenfield expresses are certainly heartfelt. She also likes to use multicolored and differently sized letters to emphasize some of what the poems say: the words “little sister” are enlarged in a poem about family, the word “never” is big and emphatic in one called “Keepsake,” and so on. But the best poems have their effect from the words alone, and the complementary nature of the illustrations: “Way Down in the Music,” for instance, shows someone lying dreamily atop a curving, mattress-like musical staff, while the words repeatedly affirm, “I get way down in the music.” And “Story,” whose illustration shows a silhouetted figure walking up steps into a book, neatly encapsulates the wonder of reading while literally interpreting the poem’s words, “I step into a story.”
Greenfield’s Honey, I Love features even older writing in the form of a full-book narrative poem dating originally to 1978, with the Gilchrist illustrations used here having originally appeared in 2003. The book is a simple declaration by a young girl of things she loves: “I LOVE the way he talks/ I love the way my cousin talks,” and “I LOVE the laughing sound/ I love to make the laughing sound,” and “Honey, let me tell you that/ I LOVE to take a ride/ I love to take a family ride,” and so forth. These illustrations, mostly of the girl, her family and her friends, take up more space on the pages: they are more prominent than the ones in In the Land of Words and considerably more conventional. That makes sense with this book’s theme: it is simply about ordinary things, everyday occurrences and events and people that a young girl can enjoy as part of her everyday life. Honey, I Love is also a celebration of black children and black families, targeting young readers who may not have the sort of warmth and extended-family joy expressed and shown here. It is mainly a book for girls, not only because of the narrator but also because the girl is shown to have a mother but there is no father anywhere. In the Land of Words reaches out to a wider audience than does Honey, I Love, but both offer young readers some pleasant pastimes featuring easy-to-follow language and just enough to think about beyond the specifics of their narratives.