Review of the Day – Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Is reviewing works of poetry essentially a ridiculous thing to attempt? I’m not trying to be facetious or anything, I honestly want to know. It took me a long time to appreciate poetry on any level, but when I did I was able to come to it understanding that its closest relative in the arts world is music. Music that a person enjoys is a deeply personal experience. Only you can replicate the feelings and emotions that certain combinations of notes inspire. By the same token, poetry should be purely a one-on-one experience. And part of the job of books of collected poems for kids is to get each child reader to find that one poem that speaks to them. Maybe if they find one, just one, that hits home then that person will seek out other poems. Maybe it’ll expand their little minds, lead them to modes of thought they might not have reached otherwise. If the ultimate goal of children’s poetry is simply to inspire in kids a love of words and wordplay, then critiquing books that seek to do that is a uniquely difficult proposition. I mean, how can you judge something that’s so subjective? The best that you can do is simply determine if the poems in a collection are good, put together in a logical way, and worthwhile reading. And in the case of Firefly July the answer to all three of those queries is yes and yes and you betcha.
Four seasons yield 36 poems. Selected by children’s poet Paul B. Janeczko, Firefly July slowly introduces each time of year with gentle, short verses that lure you in. Each poem highlights a different element of the season, whether it’s a cat stalking through the daisies in the summer or winter wind “tearing itself to shreds / On bared-wire fences.” A pleasing mix of canon poets (Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, etc.) and canon children’s poets (Charlotte Zolotow, J. Patrick Lewis, James Stevenson, etc.) the book touches lightly on those elements that make a season memorable. With illustrator Melissa Sweet’s interpretations of each poem in tow, this collection proves to be the kind of book of poetry no library or poetry-minded household can seriously be without.
Like I said before, so much of critiquing poetry is subjective. So on an entirely personal level, I can at least tell you that I didn’t really begin to warm up to these poems (no pun intended) until we hit the Summer section. Nothing against the Spring, mind you. It’s there that you’ll find a lot of the old standards like the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. But Summer proved a lovely surprise. Langston Hughes waxing eloquent on “Subway Rush Hour” followed by Joyce Sidman’s lovely “A Happy Meeting” (which conjures up memories of the e.e. cummings poem “in Just”) and then the titular “Firefly July” by J. Patrick Lewis (which really does deserve to have its name appropriated for the title of this book) combine to give one a true, rounded sense of the season. Teachers and parents would do well to read this book to kids and then ask them what their favorite season is. Mine now appears to be summer. Who knew?
The real advantage to this book is in the subtitle. “A Year of Very Short Poems”. Though I struggle in vain to find the right way to sell my poetry collection in months other than April, I can’t help but think that maybe size does matter. Books containing long and lengthy poems (like the delightful A Pond Full of Ink by Annie M.G. Schmidt) will be ideal for the already indoctrinated, but if you’re trying to lure in the poetry shy, short is the way to go. Short and sweet. And brother, it hardly gets any sweeter than this.
Melissa Sweet’s art was an interesting choice as illustrator. It makes sense when you think about it. After all, her Caldecott Honor was bestowed upon the picture book biography of poet William Carlos Williams A River of Words. In this book she is the sole artist interpreting these various works. There are no head scratching moments. No times when you feel as though she’s taking advantage of her position as the illustrator. She switches vantage points and views consistently as well, keeping the viewer awake and interested. Of all the pages, my favorite Sweet was the two-page spread accompanying Carl Sandburg’s poem “Window”. There, panel after panel after panel show scenes from a railway car looking at the countryside. Later, Ted Kooser’s “Snow Fence” contains the striking image of crows perched on a simple red fence set against the pure white drifts. One might argue that Sweet takes few risks with this book but if I’m going to trade in beauty for risk, I figure that’s a pretty fair deal.
As I am a librarian and not a teacher I don’t usually think up classroom applications for books when I read them. Firefly July proves to be the exception to the rule. Reading this book I could imagine all sort of interesting uses. For example, teachers might want to actually revive an old school standard and have the kids in their classroom memorize one of these poems for recitation type purposes. We’ve seen some books collect poems for this very specific purpose (see: Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart, selected by Mary Ann Hoberman) but in this particular case I think the quality of the selections recommend it highly. There is, after all, no better way to learn a poem heart, body, and soul than to incessantly read it over and over and over again.
With its pedigree in place it’s little wonder that Firefly July entranced me as much as it did. I don’t consider myself a poetry connoisseur so it takes something special to break through to me as much as this book did. I still maintain that reading poems of any sort is a personal business and that what suits the goose will never do for the gander. That said, for a work of introductory poems specially selected so as to calm and comfort the reluctant poetry reader, Firefly July ain’t a bad way to go. Lulling and lovely, there’s something for everyone inside. All you have to do is just give it a chance.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor
- Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons by Jon J. Muth
- Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors by Joyce Sidman
- Forget-Me-Nots: Poems to Learn by Heart selected by Mary Ann Hoberman
Misc: Jules Danielson considers the book at her Kirkus blog.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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