Charting Children’s Literature: Rosa, Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

A special, ultra-vibesy shout-out to Novel Niche’s official illustrator (and my dear friend), writer and artist Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, whose newly-commissioned artwork for NN filled me with a burst of creative zeal, inspiring me to relaunch this particular series. Thank you, Danielle! 🙂 *showers you with leaves*

Rosa, written by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Published in 2005 by Henry Holt and Company.

This story first came to me in my mid-twenties.

RosaIt’s December 1st, 1955. After a day of work at her seamstress’ job in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks boards a city bus from its hateful Coloureds entrance, and takes a seat in the vehicle’s neutral section, where both blacks and whites can sit. Looking forward to returning home and cooking her husband something special, Parks’ positive daydreaming is interrupted by the bus driver’s belligerent demands that she surrender her seat to a white passenger. As anyone with a smidgeon of knowledge on the African-American Civil Rights Movement will tell you, Rosa Parks refused – not with equal hostility, but with a calm, undaunted resolve that has etched her name into history books, monuments and national holidays. Giovanni’s faithful, poetic retelling of Parks’ story takes the reader onto that very bus, and beyond it, to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that her actions springboarded into life. It includes the nomination of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the official spokesperson for anti-segregation laws, sparking a nonviolent movement towards equality in the Constitution of the United States.

What enchanted me?

Rosa Parks’ story isn’t, or shouldn’t be, new to most adults with any cognizance of the struggle against segregation in the U.S., but it might be in danger of being forgotten, if the story ever ceases to be told. This feels like a difficult concept for me to swallow, but several conversations with young people have assured me, repeatedly, of how easy it is to forget — and I balk to think at all the truthful, useful things I myself have forgotten.

Giovanni frames this true encounter with racism’s snarling maw in a way that glides effortlessly off the page. She fills up the narrative with impressions of Rosa as she was: calm, grounded, honest about her motivations in refusing unfair treatment: not because she was physically tired, but because she was exhausted of being trampled by an unfair hierarchy. Books such as these are a boon to young readers, who interface with history’s heroines and heroes, as well as to the adults who read them aloud. For adults, they act as pillars of printed remembrance, of real stories that ought never be forgotten.

A 2006 Caldecott Honor Book, Rosa is beautifully illustrated in watercolour images and collage treatments by Bryan Collier, creating warm and immersive effects. His pictoral imaginings of the life that Parks led, up til and beyond her powerful act of resistance, complement Giovanni’s clear, strong prose. Collier received the 2006 Coretta Scott King Book Illustrator Award for his work in Rosa. 

Lines for Life:

“She sighed as she realized she was tired. Not tired from work but tired of putting white people first. Tired of stepping off sidewalks to let white people pass, tired of eating at separate lunch counters and learning at separate schools. […] She thought about her mother and her grandmother and knew they would want her to be strong. She had not sought this moment, but she was ready for it.”

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ An avid junior historian who’s curious about investigating the past, and not hesitant to name pioneers for social justice as her role models, in lieu of pop stars.

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Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night, written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Rick Allen. Published in 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

I was in my mid twenties when these poems fell into my palms.

This collection begins with a nocturnally winsome invocation, “Welcome to the Night”, in which these dark hours are described with as much liveliness and imaginative engagement as any merry daylight revel:

“The night’s a sea of dappled dark,
the night’s a feast of sound and spark,
the night’s a wild, enchanted park,
Welcome to the night!”

Subsequent poems are dedicated to specific woodland creatures: snails; moths; owls; trees; spiders; porcupettes; crickets; mushrooms; efts; bats, and the moon. Each poem reveals the ways in which these night companions investigate and explore their domain, during the hours between evening’s first footfall and the dawn’s pearly herald of a new day. For every poem, too, there is a column of accompanying factual text, detailing the physical properties, habits and characteristics of the poem’s subject.

What enchanted me?

A 2011 Newberry Honor Book, Dark Emperor is precisely the sort of children’s book that will be read to Baby/ies Novel Niche, should one/s ever be bouncily forthcoming. Barring that possibility, however, this remains a book for both treasuring closely and sharing widely, which is why I’ve two copies and plans to acquire more. Sidman’s poems are laden with the prancings, rustlings and winkings of these sylvan inhabitants, and each piece is a resonant embodiment of its focus. In “Dark Emperor”, from which the book derives its title, Sidman hones in unerringly on the great horned owl’s imperious majesty, wondering in verse at

“What symphonies of 
squeaks and skitters, darts
and rustles, swell the vast,
breathing darkness of your realm?”

The owl as foreboding predator; the spider as confident peddler of survival instincts; the steadfast and nurturing guardianship of the oak tree: these character sketches and several others await the reader, bound to fascinate children with any love for the earth’s wild and unexplored places. The factual supplements will interest older children who are getting their hands and chemistry sets messy with documenting their environmental observations.

Rick Allen’s relief printed lino cuts are individual vistas of panoramic and precise astonishment, allowing a revisitation of familiar animals and haunts with eyes that will appreciate the artist’s intricacy, his use of shadow and light, his measured and brilliant application of pigment. Allen’s art holds hands eagerly and elegantly with Sidman’s, and the results are worth reading and rereading: they make the perfect invitation to a night-time slumber party of imaginative revels, beneath the glow of a  moon waxing towards fullness.

Lines for Life:

“Where are the diving sweeps of the nighthawk
and where its haunting cry?
Where is the thrum of crickets,
the throbbing of frogs?
Where are the great flocks of travelers
whose soft wings whispered to me,
wave upon wave,
beating toward some distant wood?”

from “The Moon’s Lament” (an ubi sunt)

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ A wee expeditioner with good, clean dirt beneath his fingernails, a magnifying glass hanging from a string ’round his neck, and a heart filled with investigative zeal that tracks muddy footprints right into the night forest’s teeming core.

Charting Children’s Literature is a monthly feature at Novel Niche that seeks to highlight the beauty and richness inherent in many of the books written and illustrated with the enjoyment and education of young children in mind. The feature was launched in August 2011, and is set to run for the foreseeable future (to infinity and beyond)!

If you’re interested in bringing to my attention beautiful children’s books I haven’t yet covered, feel free to leave a comment on this page. If you would like to contribute a guest Charting Children’s Literature feature, please make use of the contact form provided. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Charting Children’s Literature: Mama’s Saris, Owl At Home

Mama’s Saris, written by Pooja Makhijani, illustrated by Elena Gomez. Published in 2007 by Little, Brown and Co., New York.

This tale first came to me in my early twenties.

A young girl wants to celebrate her seventh birthday party in the finest style possible, and for her, this means the right to wear one of her mother’s intricate saris. As her mother produces the infrequently worn, much-treasured collection from its storage space beneath the bed, her daughter pleads, cajoles and sulks, seemingly to no avail. Each sari the mother holds up from the leather suitcase has its own story. The one she selects for herself to wear at her child’s birthday celebration is brilliantly orange, trimmed with a carmine hem, and it was also donned on the day she brought her infant daughter home for the first time. Others, in colours of ripe fruit; the ink-dark midnight sky; the wide, blue ocean, are paraded before the daughter, and finally, sensing the young girl’s urgency, the mother comes to a momentous decision that will frame the day in heightened significance for them both.

What enchanted me?

Which girl hasn’t wanted, in one way or another, to walk in her mother’s heeled, perfumed, glittering footsteps? Mama’s Saris strikes keen chords of remembrance and nostalgia for me, as I have been that giddy, optimistic protagonist, perched on my mother’s bed, my arms arrayed in purloined bangles every colour of the rainbow, yearning for an induction into the mysterious magic of my first sari. Author Makhijani expresses it well in the note that introduces us to the story:

“I wrote Mama’s Saris after realizing that my own fascination with my mother’s fancy clothes was not unique. It seemed as if each of my female friends, regardless of ethnicity or age, remembers being captivated by her mother’s grown-up clothes. By dressing up like their mothers (and emulating everything else that they did), they would be just as beautiful, too.”

Gomez’s art partners itself with Makhijani’s prose in an exquisite, sensorially aware marriage that is, simultaneously, rapturous to behold and arresting to read. Each page unfurls before us like a yard of ornately bedezined sari cloth, stitched with remarkable love, attention to detail, and master (mistress!) craftswomanship.

Lines for Life:

” ‘What about this one?’ I point to a sari that I don’t think I’ve seen before. It is orange like fire with edges that look like they have been dipped in red paint.

‘I wore that sari the day we brought you home from the hospital.’ Mama smiles. ‘All your aunties and uncles came to greet you.’

‘Wear it again today!’

Mama unfurls it. It shines like the afternoon sun.”

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ anyone for whom the sari is a sublime expression of beauty and artistry.

♣ mother and daughter duos eager to infuse their lives—and dress up dates—with even more revelry!

♣ those who skip and lilt, exultantly, at the place where traditions are delicately and deliberately passed on, those torches that bloom through the years.

Owl At Home, written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. Published in 1975 by Scholastic Books, New York.

I first opened these pages when I was less than five.

Owl At Home is an offering of five short tales in the life of Owl, an affable, thoughtful gentle-bird who seems to delight in his own company, as well as in exploring the world around him. In “The Guest”, Owl learns that some visitors simply won’t adhere to expected protocol, when he invites Winter past his threshold on a particularly chilly night. “Strange Bumps” tells the story of Owl’s fear of two mysterious lumps that appear near the foot of his bed when he lies down, and how he deals with their persistent recurrence. A kettle full of weeping, prompted by ruminations on the saddest things, such as forgotten pencil stubs and never-seen sunrises, fills the kettle for Owl’s delicious, albeit slightly salty, “Tear-Water Tea”. “Upstairs and Downstairs” reveals Owl’s frustration over his inability to exist both on the landing as well as at the foot of his twenty-stepped staircase. Finally, in “Owl and the Moon”, our avian friend finds that a contemplation of the moon near the seaside doesn’t necessarily end when he folds his wings and prepares to head home.

What enchanted me?

I’m tempted to say, “Everything!”, and conclude this section thusly.

It’s important to know that this was one of the first books I learned to read. Owl At Home didn’t just teach me about proper pronunciation, basic grammar and syntax governance, though. It schooled me in self-sufficiency, creative zeal, an Owlian zest for life, of the wonder of imagination and the power of suggestion. Owl didn’t *need* a Mrs. Owl, or a flock of owl-lets. He wouldn’t have been diminished by their presence, sure, but more importantly, the absence of their presence didn’t diminish *him*. I don’t think I mused on it so lucidly at four, but I loved his aloneness, even then, and the way in which his solitude didn’t make him lonely, or morose. We could all stand to borrow a page or three from Owl’s book… a book which I can still read today, and delight in, and laugh with, and smile til my face aches, just as much as I did when I was unfamiliar with the intricacies of the shoelace. You won’t be able to read this book (to yourself, or to your children) and tell me you’re not at least tempted to try out that Tear-Water Tea recipe. Come on… you’re thinking up at least five sad things right now. Go fetch a kettle, mate.

Lines for Life:

“Owl watched the moon.
It climbed higher and higher
into the sky.
Soon the whole, round moon
was shining.
Owl sat on the rock
and looked up at the moon
for a long time.
“If I am looking
at you, moon
then you must be
looking back at me.
We must be
very good friends.” ” 

This book would be best-beloved by:

♣ ramblers, ponderers, pocket sages, anti-politicos, and all people who’ve wanted to be both upstairs and downstairs at least once in all their lives.

♣ everyone. Everyone. This book is for everyone. It’s for you. It’s still, and always will be, for me.

Charting Children’s Literature is a monthly feature at Novel Niche that seeks to highlight the beauty and richness inherent in many of the books written and illustrated with the enjoyment and education of young children in mind. The feature was launched in August 2011, and is set to run for the foreseeable future (to infinity and beyond)!

If you’re interested in bringing to my attention beautiful children’s books I haven’t yet covered, feel free to leave a comment on this page. If you would like to contribute a guest Charting Children’s Literature feature, please make use of the contact form provided. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Charting Children’s Literature: Batwings and the Curtain of Night, Owl Moon

Batwings and the Curtain of Night, written by Marguerite W. Davol, illustrated by Mary GrandPré. Published in 1997 by Orchard Books, New York.

This tale first came to me at the age of 15 or so.

The Mother of All Things shapes the world lovingly, halving its hours into night and day, then bestowing it upon all the creatures of sea, wind, forest and field. Rulers of themselves and their earthly domain, the animals are all drawn to night’s restful canopy, but agree that it is overwhelmingly dark for their navigations. Purposing to alter the face of night itself, they enlist the aid of all the world’s bats in pulling back the vast, inky curtains of nights, to allow more light to peer through. As the Mother of All Things watches on wisely from her vantage point, her animal kingdom valiantly attempts to punctuate the mysterious deep with points of glimmering light, mirroring her own desire to colour the world in radiance, at the first breath of its Creation.

What enchanted me?

Stories that sing different choruses about the beginnings (and, for that matter, the endings) of All Things have always captured my attention and delight, especially when they are compellingly, sincerely told. Batwings and the Curtain of Night is no exception. The language employed by Davol invites itself satisfyingly to being read aloud, fashioned as it is of simple prose, elaborately arranged, with an overall effect of graceful, easy magic. Mary GrandPré’s art, made famous on the Scholastic-edition covers of the Harry Potter series, is an exquisite complement to the narrative. It is imbued with equal measures of light and darkness, mystery and illumination, depth and phosphorescence; therefore its very style patterns near-perfectly the concerns at the book’s core. I cherish every reread of Batwings and the Curtain of Night as a gently-bestowed reminder of all the beautiful things that are wrought from shells of seeming brokenness. (Read it, and you’ll know just what I mean.)

Lines for Life:

“Together they climbed the highest mountain. When they reached the peak, they looked up. The sky, almost dark by now, still seemed very far away. Could they reach it?

The owl said, “We must all fly as high as our hearts will allow.”

With a mighty whirl, the bats and the owl soared toward the sky. Struggling upward, they flew and flew until they thought their hearts would burst. But no one gave up.”

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ anyone who believes in, or has built altars of prayer in honour of, a bountiful, benevolent Mother of All Things.

♣ those who appreciate the thriving truth of multiple meanings in the dawning of our world.

♠ one for whom the bat is no less a mythical,  marvellous creature than a roaring lion, or a peacock in his plumage.

Owl Moon, written by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, published in 1987 by Philomel Books, New York. Winner of the Caldecott Medal in 1988.

I first opened these pages when I was in my early twenties.

In the quiet, deep heartbeat of a winter’s night, with the moon full and expectant against the sky, a girl walks into the woods with her father. The sounds of human and animal life fade away into white-blanketed silence as they walk, exchanging no words. She is going owling for the first time, and in this sacred space of an awestruck initiation, all her senses are livewires that conduct the experience back to her, and through her, though she utters not a syllable. They carry no nets, no bait (save an owl call, offered earnestly), no measures of entrapment whatsoever. Both she and her father know, in varying degrees of detail, but with equal faith, that the only armour needed for a true owling experience is hope.

What enchanted me?

There are rare reads that encourage you to become a better person, every time you read them, which simultaneously exact no toll on you for being exactly the person you are, in the here and now. Owl Moon is such a book. Yolen paints a cinematographically vivid landscape with a carefully collected assembly of words, poetically rendered, without any ornamentation, it seems, but a devotion to preserving passionate rituals between parents and their children. Schoenherr reminds us of the subtlety that truly majestic art wields. We are there, with the girl and her father, trudging relentlessly through knee-high drifts, shielding our faces against frost’s kiss, hopeful determination beating in our hearts. I love that Owl Moon speaks so unequivocally to being resilient, to embracing fear and walking calmly through it to the other side, where peaceful territory awaits. This book will remind you of the most sweetly sacrosant of peregrinations you paced out in the company of the one you called, or thought of, as Mother or Father , despite blood. If you have none on which to full-heartedly reminisce, this book will make you yearn to create some, for the children you have, or will.

Lines for Life:

“When you go owling
you don’t need words
or warm
or anything but hope.
That’s what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shining
Owl Moon.”

This book would be best-beloved by:

the children of winter and all her breath-misting revelations, no matter from whence they hail.

♣ believers in silence as a necessary guide on any journey of note.

♣ all parents who wish to share life-affirming magic with their children; all children who wish to learn how to grow up, and stay young, with their parents.

Charting Children’s Literature is a monthly feature at Novel Niche that seeks to highlight the beauty and richness inherent in many of the books written and illustrated with the enjoyment and education of young children in mind. The feature was launched in August 2011, and is set to run for the foreseeable future (to infinity and beyond)!

If you’re interested in bringing to my attention beautiful children’s books I haven’t yet covered, feel free to leave a comment on this page. If you would like to contribute a guest Charting Children’s Literature feature, please make use of the contact form provided. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Charting Children’s Literature: The Maiden on the Moor, Nungu and the Hippopotamus

There is no genre quite like children’s literature when it comes to the creation and sustenance of our most ethereal, elemental dreams. Even the most notoriously bookshy of us remember the tales of our childhood. Even if your favourite youthful adventure or fantasy is not in any book you know, surely it was told to you…whispered in your ear during a rowdy recess break, or murmured across a campfire. If parents allow themselves to release their grip on adult sobriety, they, too, derive an equal pleasure from reading to their children, as their children delight in the listening and the looking, the reaching out to touch ornately patterned pages.

I have never denied myself the joy of reading a child’s book, of immersing myself in the story, of delighting at the quality and expressiveness of the illustration — and I daresay I am the merrier for it. Deciding to embark on this feature sent me back to the bookshelves of my parents’ house, where I grew up, where I often return. Instinctively, I knew just where to find certain titles; memory drew me back to them unerringly. Others I discovered by searching, rummaging through stacks, disrupting fine layers of dust. The revelry of rediscovery was no less than the satisfied thrill of anticipation. I read; I reread. I traced out lines of familiar faces and places, amazed at how it all came back to me, wondering whether it ever really left.

Beginning now and continuing indefinitely (as far as the road may wind, hopefully), Novel Niche will feature two children’s books each month. Some of these books I read when I was in pinafores, thigh-high white socks and brilliant red ribbons. Some I savoured in a business suit and sensible heels. All are beloved to me, and I am pleased to share them with you.

The Maiden on the Moor, written by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Troy Howell. Published in 1995 by Morrow Junior Books, New York (an imprint of HarperCollins).

This tale first came to me at the age of 21 or so.

On a bitterly cold, windswept night on the moors, two shepherd brothers and their dogs stumble upon a barely-stirring raven haired beauty. Her mystery and fairness of face enchant the younger sibling, who carries her to his humble cottage home to protect her from the unforgiving winter chill. Lonely in the depths of his heart, the young and noble shepherd sings to his slumbering love, in the hope that she will awaken from her frosty reverie and consent to be his constant companion. Awaken she does, when the shepherd is asleep, but it is to take a surprising journey, one nigh-impossible to predict, with both devastating and uplifting results.

What enchanted me?

This book opens with a medieval English verse of “A Maiden on the Moor”, adapted by author Marilyn Singer. The rest of the tale is told in a gracious, gently lilting tongue. Howell’s art is expressively suited to this wintry fable of loss, love and redemption. His hand is at once light and constant; each brushstroke line adds to an interpretation of a landscape both subtle and powerful, peopled by souls governed as much by the magic of the moors as by the demands of their own hearts.

Lines for Life:

“In the evenings, when he returned from his flocks, he sat at her side. At first he, too, was silent. Then he began to talk of his life as a shepherd, his love for the moors. He told her how in the spring the pale yellow flowers perched like birds on the broom brushes. He spoke of summer’s shining days, its sea of heather, purple and green. But he did not speak of the sadness in his heart.”

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ someone who appreciates the beauty of a sad and happy ending, intertwined.

♣ all lonely hearts that long for love.

♣ all bewitched, bewitching maidens who know themselves.

Nungu and the Hippopotamus, written and illustrated by Babette Cole. Published in 1978 by Macdonald and Jane’s, London (now defunct).

I first opened these pages when I was 5 or 6.

An enterprising young boy, Nungu, sets off in search of the mischief-making hippo who has swallowed up the entire Umvuvu River, which once flowed right around Tubu Island in the heart of Africa. Nungu’s grandfather, a fellow Tubu islander, gifts Nungu a special hiccuping medicine, formulated to make Madam Hippo expel the stolen river from her tummy. Armed with this, a particularly tempting pumpkin and his personal store of courage, Nungu sets out with his faithfully lazy donkey Masheety, to find Madam Hippo and restore the Umvuvu to his people.

What enchanted me?

I must have puzzled and puzzled for hours over how an entire river could exist in the belly of a hippo, no matter how magnificent her proportions. Even though I was a wee sceptic, even then, Nungu and the Hippopotamus never failed to delight—it still does. I smile in admiration of Cole’s storytelling, as I contemplate Nungu’s heroic quest: who among us would have gone hippo-hunting in our youth? The author’s illustrations are fine, precise and brimming with charming detail. Each panel is a work of art.

Lines for Life:

“What will you give me in return for this water,” said Madam Hippo.

“Do you like pumpkins?” asked Nungu, as if he didn’t know.

Madam Hippo smiled a great wide smile. “It just so happens that there is nothing I like better,” she said.

This book would be best beloved by:

♣ an adventurous and enterprising spirit.

♣ a lover of fireside tales and folklores.