August 21, 2008


Sputter, Sputter, Sput! By Babs Bell. Illustrated by Bob Staake. HarperCollins. $16.99.

Honeybee. By Naomi Shihab Nye. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

Psyche in a Dress. By Francesca Lia Block. Joanna Cotler/HarperCollins. $7.99.

      Poetry works differently at different parts of the age scale. Sputter, Sputter, Sput! is by far the simplest book here – which makes sense, since it is for ages 2-5. Here the poetry aids directness of expression and, through its rhythms and rhymes, enjoyment of the very simple story, in which a character drives a car “Uphill. Downhill. Up and down/ past all the houses in my town.” But then the car sputters and stops (hence the book’s title) – it is out of gas. A quick fill-up (“Glug! Gurgle! Glug!”) and the trip continues. That is essentially the entire book, and no, it is not a parable of conspicuous consumption or a warning for children about current high gas prices – it is simply a straightforward, charming story told in deliberately repetitive rhymes, compactly written by Babs Bell (whose full name is Babs Bell Hajdusiewicz) and delightfully illustrated by Bob Staake with characters whose heads are, in most cases, bigger than the rest of their bodies. For its target audience, it is right on target.

      Honeybee aims higher – in age, anyway. Intended for ages 10 and up, Naomi Shihab Nye’s book includes both poetry and short bursts of prose. Some of the pieces here, such as “Hibernate,” have intriguing subjects: “My father’s friend Farouk/ has a dream:/ God resigned./ And all the people took better care of one another/ and got together then/ because, well, they had to.” Others are odd, such as “Accuracy,” in which one girl says she married another girl’s sock puppet “in my mind” but, when complimented for loving him, answers, “I didn’t say I love him! I said, he is my husband!” Still others, such as “The Cost,” have social and political undercurrents: “Oh students, we will teach you/ everything you need to know/ then place a gun in your hands?/ Makes sense, doesn’t it?/ No sense seems common anymore.” Because the book leaps and meanders rather than progresses, and because it is somewhat inconsistent in both style and subject matter, it gets a (+++) rating – but existing fans of Nye, a popular author of novels as well as poetry, will rate it higher.

      Existing fans who are still older – 14 and up – will be the primary target for Psyche in a Dress. Francesca Lia Block’s very short 2006 book, now available in paperback, is a set of prose poems in which ancient Greek transformation myths are updated for modern times. The tale of Psyche and Cupid becomes one in which she says the god “told me all the myths, one after the other/ night after night/ my beautiful, brutal bedtime tales.” Psyche, here imagined as an independent filmmaker, wishes for a change comparable to those of the characters in the tales that Cupid tells her. Other figures are also reimagined in a modern urban environment: Aphrodite as a shopgirl, Echo and Narcissus as actors, and so on. The various stories interconnect with a framing tale about filmmaking, and the narratives are done from a variety of perspectives: the tale of Orpheus, for example, includes his voice, that of Eurydice and that of the Maenad (here, a rock star). The density of the themes belies the book’s 115-page length, but the interlocking stories and the interweaving of the ancient and the modern may prove difficult for teens not already familiar with Block to digest. This book too gets a (+++) rating, but it will be especially appealing to those already familiar with Block’s style.

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