Review of the Day: Just Like Me by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Ever see a word used so much that the meaning begins to blur after a while? If you lived your whole life buying books based on their reviews rather than seeing the books firsthand, you would be forgiven for just sort of meshing all the books that get tagged with those words together in the swampy fog of your mind. And normally I don’t look at the professional reviews all that closely when I have a book in hand. Still, in the case of Just Like Me by Vanessa Brantley-Newton I found myself a bit tongue-tied. What were other reviewers saying that really promoted the wide array of artistic styles coupled with the adept poetry on display here? How were they conveying the tone of this book, and the way in which this book stands out from others that might follow similar lines of thought?
Not untrue, but we can do better. We may have spent the better part of Poetry Month sheltering in place, but that doesn’t mean poetry went to sleep. Instead, books like this one have just been biding their time. Go out. Find it. Discover it. And discover why a book this good deserves some keener adjectives in its arsenal.
“I am a canvas / being painted on / by the words of my family / friends / and community.” A complicated concept that could lead to conversations about whether or not a person should mindlessly allow themselves to be defined by others, yes? But in Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s Just Like Me this is the poem that kicks off the entire book. Ostensibly this is a book that kids (according to the publisher) will use to find the poem that’s “just like them”. I can see that, but when I look at the 28 poems I see an amalgamation of different ways of looking at girls. I see poems that delve deeply into their subjects and others that just crest the surface. A book that is more than just the sum of its parts.
It’s always a bit of a treat to find out that a talented artist writes well too. Now I’d be the first person to admit that there are a lot of books that look like Just Like Me out there. We do not lack for strong girl picture books and works of poetry. But how many of those books stand out? I’d argue that this one does on a number of levels and it’s all because of the poems. From the wistful “A Wish for Daddy” that speaks to a deep private sadness, to the goofball positive “Weird”, to my personal favorite “Sundress Blues” where a girl complains that “My sundress and I are no longer friends” (but ends “the wind began blowing my dress here and there / and showing off my underwear / Well . . . / at least they were cute”). I just really dug the tone of this book. Were every poem in this book sunny/happy/cheery, etc. it would be a perfectly decent offering, but it’s that little jolt of sadness once in a while that keeps it going strong. Of course I found a couple poems suffer from what I have deemed the Hug-o-War Problem. These are poems that simplify big problems just a bit too much and a bit too easily. But overall I enjoyed what Brantley-Newton was putting down.
I was also quite keen on the fact that the artistic style employed changes a great deal from spread to spread (and sometimes from page to page). I like to think we all already knew that Brantley-Newton was capable of a wide array of different styles. The first book of hers I ever remember reading was the thoroughly charming Drum City by Thea Guidone. After that, I thought I’d know what to expect from her. Yet the woman keeps you on your toes, never quite settling for a single look. To the best of my knowledge she’s never collected all these styles into one book before. It took me a little while to put my finger on what was so different between some of these, and then it hit me: The whites of the eyes! There’s a world of difference between a character that has dots for eyes and one where you can see the whites. And after you notice that then you notice the collage, the charcoal, the pencils and pastels and acrylic paints and all the other methods the artist used to bring this work to life. This is a book that is working its tail off to keep your eyes from getting bored or used to anything. You are going to pay attention to what you see, whether you want to or not.
I get bored by picture books that do only one thing. And yes, I’m completely aware of how incredibly snobby that sounds. For crying out loud, picture books aren’t written for ME, right? They’re written for kids that don’t know any better. But kids aren’t these empty little vessels you pour words and pictures into. They have opinions and thoughts on what makes a book good or bad to them. Feed them a diet of really good books and that’s going to come out in other ways. So if you hand them Just Like Me and you read them Just Like Me and they take away from Just Like Me the fact that they are strong, and weird, and worthy, and loved, and that book is doing a ton of different things all at once, then isn’t shaking things up is the best way to go with picture book poetry collections? Remember at the beginning of this review when I said that the words “uplifting” and “empowering” could be overused? Well, let me hand you some additional terms that sum this book up for me. “Fun”. “Insightful.” “Marvelously rendered.” “Piquant.” I could go on, but let’s let the book speak for itself. Or, even better, speak to our kids.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent by publisher for review.
Treat yourself to a reading by the author/illustrator of her own book for PBS here:
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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