Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Poetry Review - A Child's Calendar by John Updike

Somehow the Fourth of July has come and gone again. We were fortunate to have beautiful sunny weather here all weekend, somewhat of a rarity in Northwest Washington, so we were able to get some yard work done and then enjoy the fruits of our labor. We had planned to take Sprout to his first-ever fireworks display yesterday but a day of playing in his wading pool, chasing the dog, blowing bubbles and throwing the ball in the back yard had him completely worn out even before his regular bedtime. But there's always next year!

Having a little one around the house makes it even more fun to mark holidays and the passing of seasons. A great title for doing this is A Child's Calendar, a collection of poems written by John Updike (yes, that John Updike) and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Each month is celebrated in its own poem, with the highs and lows of the seasons and holidays captured in simple, readable verse. Updike's knack for imagery takes a playful turn; of March, he says "The sun is nervous / as a kite / that can't quite keep / its own string tight." How well that sums up the fleeting glimpses of spring that March offers, teasing us with its promise of brighter days ahead! I also love his take on October (my personal favorite month): "Frost bites the lawn. / The stars are slits / in a black cat's eye / before she spits."

And these effortless yet succulent bits of poetry are made even more fun by the charming illustrations. I know, charming -- overused as a descriptor, but so perfect for these artistic snapshots. If you have any familiarity with Schart Hyman's work then you'll recognize her vividly color palette and wry humor at once. But what makes this title special for our family is that the illustrations depict a multiracial family, with hair and skin of all colors. The family here enjoys making Valentines, watering plants and picking flowers, taking a long walk on a November day. I love the underlying subtext: here is a family just like any other, complete with that one kid who strips down to nothing while playing in the ocean. I remember reading once that Schart Hyman was one of the first illustrators to depict multiracial families -- another reason to enjoy her work, besides her gorgeous scenery and the raw emotion she paints into every character.

This is the kind of book I wish we'd see more of, one where there's no heavy-handed message about racism or acceptance, just a gentle glimpse of a family enjoying the year in one another's company. A great addition to any family's bookshelf.

A Child's Calendar by John Updike, published by Holiday House
All ages
Caldecott Honor title
Sample quote: "November: The stripped and shapely / maple grieves / the loss of her / departed leaves."

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