Review of the Day: Marshmallow Clouds by Ted Kooser & Connie Wanek, ill. Richard Jones
Often, poetry is meant to invoke the ineffable. A feeling. The way a certain slant of light snags a memory. Like music or art, poetry is capable of creating its own mood. Yet when we look at children’s poetry as a whole, quietude is easily buried beneath a whole host of louder, flashier, zippier concepts. Want a blackout poetry book where newspaper articles have words carefully removed? How ‘bout spine poetry instead, where you stack books on top of one another and read their titles? Care for some Shel Silverstein? Some Jack Prelutsky? Want an entire book of robot poems, or a book of haikus, or sonnets, or quadrilles, or or or . . . the list goes on. Quieter of books of poetry for kids have a lot to compete against. Now I’ll admit right here and now that there is little from the outside to catch your eye when you look at Marshmallow Clouds. If you know a bit about poetry then you might recognize Ted Kooser’s name on the cover (he being a Pulitzer Prize winning former US Poet Laureate and all). But if I’ve learned nothing else over the years, just because you do well in the adult sphere, that doesn’t guarantee any success when reorienting yourself towards a younger audience. That said, Marshmallow Clouds is one of those books that works so effectively for young readers that it feels as though the co-authors (co-poets?) had been honing their talents for kids, specifically, for years. One of those books that will subtly coil its way around your heart, even as you obliviously flip page after page after page.
Twenty-eight poems (or are there thirty?) appear in this dreamy collection of collected observations. In July we read, “One summer day I was boiled and salted / like a peanut. I was the meat / in a heat sandwich, the dog in a hot.” Vibrant red seeps out on the page as the cool of night on the other douses the flames. In the poem “Boat” we see an upside-down aluminum boat and a shadow beneath it. “It’s been waiting / all summer, and maybe for thousands of years / peering out at the meddlesome world.” Each poem in this book falls into one of four categories: Fire, Air, Earth, and Water. Yet even as they’re gathered together, each one also stands entirely alone on its page. They are waiting to be read aloud, not once, not twice, but repeatedly. They will not have to wait long.
I find it interesting that I cannot figure out how this book came to be. The book itself offers no clues. Two poets are listed, but the poems inside are never attributed to one or the other or both. The poems simply are. It’s no good to try to figure out if one sounds more like one poet and one sounds more like another. I took the liberty of reading some of Kooser and Wanek’s poetry for the grown and discovered that it would not be difficult for their voices to meld, as they seemingly have here. Wanek’s book of poetry Rival Gardens: New and Selected Poems is the second book in the Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry Series, but beyond that the nature of their working relationship remains undefined. The good news is that you hardly care a jot once you’ve started. Now I’ve encountered Ted Kooser’s picture books before and of the lot the one that probably sticks with me the most is The Bell in the Bridge. I find it interesting that he routinely returns to the picture book form. Even so, little wonder that the moment he let himself write poetry for children his book eclipsed all the others. As for Ms. Wanek, this is the debut most authors ache to achieve: a complete and rousing success story.
Drilling down into what it is that makes one book of children’s poetry better than any other is just so freakin’ subjective. Then again, I read a lot of juvenile poetry in a given year and most of it just flits through my little gray cells without leaving much of a mark. In the case of Marshmallow Clouds I was hooked from poem #1. It’s called “A Disappointment”, which is a ballsy way to begin a poetry book for kids, I gotta say. Most books would kick off with some upbeat claptrap, or outright silliness. Instead, in this poem Kooser and Wanek discuss how those images you glimpse out of the corner of your eye play with your perceptions. The last two lines simply read, “and the nest was old and cold, / and even the squirrel was gone.” I just sat there for a little bit, digesting this, and then I flipped to the subtitle of this book again. “Two Poets at Play among Figures of Speech.” Huh. The next poem is “Meteor Shower” talks about how those heavenly bodies are “scratching the heavens, just little scratches, the kind a cat might make…” And I slowly began to understand that these are poems that use metaphors magnificently. A teacher with a class of kids, could make this book practical, using it to teach the very concept of what a metaphor is. They could, but I hope they also just read these aloud, one by one, to their classes.
It was with resignation that I discovered that illustrator Richard Jones is inconveniently English. I say “inconveniently” because when it comes to American literary awards for children, most times American are the only ones eligible. I rather adore his style here yet, and this is kind of funny, I take issue with the cover and title of this book. Marshmallow Clouds is a tame, middle-of-the-road title. The image of a child relaxing with their dog under a blue sky is perfectly decent and perfectly forgettable. Me? I would have taken the exploding quilt-like patterned stars of the poem “A Secret” and made them the cover of this book. Something as sharp and bright as those stars is bound to lure in more young readers. And isn’t that the business we’re all in, after all? Luring kids to books, by hook or by crook? Mr. Jones seems to specialize in poetry books for children, having worked previously on titles like The Proper Way to Meet a Hedgehog and Other How-to Poems. I almost feel that his style complements this slight, 72-page book better, though. Kooser and Wanek give the man space to play. The poem “A Bad Dream”, for example, displays a single house in the distance, stars fading at the top of the page, the dawn’s light creeping in. Somehow, what could feel like an image from “In Cold Blood” takes on a gentle, comforting cant that is in perfect tandem with the tone of the accompanying poem. It’s as if Jones truly pondered the myriad directions this art could go, and found a way to heighten and never distract from the true star of the show: the wordplay. It’s uniquely modest and unassuming. You have to respect him (to say nothing of the Art Director) for going that route.
My favorite poem in this whole, big, wide, beautiful book is “The World Without Me”. Long after I finished the rest of the book, I kept thinking about it. One night, I read it aloud to my kids. My husband just happened to also be listening and when I finished, he simply said, “That’s a good poem.” It is a good poem. Maybe the best in the book, though you’re allowed to have your own favorites. Personally, I keep flip flopping between different verses at different moments. What doesn’t change is how I feel about this book as a whole. May I simply say that this is one of the best collections of original children’s poetry I’ve ever read? Maybe poetry is far more than just touching on the ineffable. Maybe it’s about touching on the universal through the specific. If you read the poems in this book and do not feel at least the slightest tiny ache in your chest afterwards then try again. No glitter on its cover. No gold or gilt or glam. This is a beautiful book that could have the power to make your boisterous children introspective, if only for a moment. And a moment, depending on how it is spent, can last a lifetime if done correctly.
On shelves March 15th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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