The Illustrated Robert Frost & The Illustrated Emily Dickinson (Ryan G. Van Cleave)

Hello, friends! Our books today are The Illustrated Robert Frost and The Illustrated Emily Dickinson – both edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave and illustrated by David Miles – collections of the famous poets’ work geared toward young readers.

Collecting twenty-five of each poet’s short works, these illustrated editions pair the poems of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost with lush mixed-media art and early-level analysis to help bookworms understand how to read the poems critically. Each poem has a two-page spread that includes sidebars that help the reader “Engage” (answer questions about the poem), “Imagine” (expand upon the poem’s content), and “Define” (learn the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary words). Readers can immerse themselves in famous works like “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” and “The Road Not Taken,” as well as dozens more in these early appreciation volumes.

Interesting. Flat out, I have two different reviews for each book. As a concept, I think this works wonderfully; by giving young readers a roadmap to poetry analysis, the books help kids engage with material that may be too dense otherwise. Particularly helpful are the plain-speech descriptions in the notes of the afterword, which could have honestly been included on the page of each poem. However, some of the interpretations that Van Cleave includes are not widely accepted ones, and occasionally quite watered down for the younger audience. His selection of Dickinson’s poetry fares alright under this, but Frost’s less so. The artwork, a mixture of public domain and stock images, works sometimes and doesn’t others. While it definitely creates atmosphere, it’s typically pretty obvious that the artwork was not created FOR the poem it accompanies. Also, diverse representation is practically nonexistent – nearly every person that appears is white. The length is best for middle grade or older elementary readers, and JJ enjoyed a poem or two, but quickly lost interest. Overall, I would recommend these to fans of the poets’ work, especially the Dickinson title, but if you skip them, you’re not missing too much. Overall though, Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem (Sojourner Kincaid Rolle)

Hello, friends! We’re here today with a special Sunday review! Our book today is Free at Last: A Juneteenth Poem, written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle and illustrated by Alex Bostic, a beautiful look at the meaning behind, and importance of, Juneteenth.

On June 19th, 1865 in Galveston, Texas, the news had finally arrived: the Civil War was over, and slavery had been declared illegal by the Emancipation Proclamation. And after 300 years of enslavement, “descendants of Africa picked up their souls – all that they owned” and began the process of remaking their lives. Some celebrated with song, some prayed. Some journeyed as far from Texas as they could, and some boldly made their homes as neighbors of the very people who had held them in bondage. And every year, on June 19th, their lives and journeys and celebrations and prayers are remembered by those who came after, so that their trials, triumphs, and the moment they first knew freedom, may never be forgotten.

Powerful. Rolle’s beautiful free verse poem and Bostic’s stunning oil paintings combine here to tell a story of a pivotal moment in American history that, until very recently, was unknown to so many, making a title as impeccably and passionately constructed as this one all the more vital (admittedly, I grew up never knowing of Juneteenth until my adulthood). Rolle’s poem is filled with beautiful phrasing and impactful moments of rhyme, yet maintains a tone and vocabulary that school-aged children will easily understand. Bostic’s artwork is similarly engaging, conveying intense emotion that young readers will recognize and empathize with. Combined with a perfect length for storytimes, this becomes a fantastic book for introducing Juneteenth and educating on its significance. JJ and I both really loved this, and I was especially blown away but what a powerful teaching tool this is. Overall, an absolute must-read, and we highly recommend it. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

All Welcome Here (James Preller)

Hello, friends! Our book today is All Welcome Here, written by James Preller and illustrated by Mary Grandpre, a poetic look at the varied experiences and emotions of the first day of school.

Told in a serious of titled haiku, readers are treated to nearly thirty miniature stories, featuring a diverse array of characters, settings, and situations that recall the first day at a new school. There are emotions, like trepidation, excitement, and shyness; new experiences, like meeting the principal and boarding the bus for the first time; and new places to explore, like the school library and playground. And at the end of the day, everyone heads home, knowing that they’ll return the next day for more learning, laughter, and adventures.

Interesting. Since the “first day of school” theme is a common one for picture books, it’s always nice to see a novel approach, and one of a collection of haiku poetry is certainly that. And on occasion, the form, combined with the colorful, energetic paintings of the artwork, results in a lovely effect, such as in “Growing Up”, where a child boarding a bus is compared to a bird leaving the nest, or “Library”, an ode to the heart of nearly every school building. However, many of the haiku fall flat or feel incomplete, the medium not quite suited to the feeling it’s meant to evoke. Certain poems, such as “Harold” and “Prank” even feel a little mean-spirited, which is perhaps not an unrealistic view of school life but hardly an encouraging one for young readers who may be nervous about their own first day. Otherwise, the length is fine, and broken up easily as the reader wishes, and JJ enjoyed some of the poems and artwork immensely. An uneven offering to a popular genre, but not without its charms; overall, Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Blooming Beneath The Sun (Christina Rossetti & Ashley Bryan)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Blooming Beneath The Sun, a picture book featuring the work of 19th century poet Christina Rossetti and illustrations by Ashley Bryan.

Who has seen the wind? What is pink? Including 13 poems by Rossetti (plus a bonus poem that accompanies an informational paragraph about the poet), these are the questions and contemplations posed to young readers. Kid-friendly poems, none more than 16 lines in length, invite them to ponder peacocks, reflect on roosters, and wonder at the waves of an angry sea. Each poem is accompanied by a colorful, layered paper collage that brings its subject to life, and encourages further consideration.

Admittedly, I was not familiar with Rossetti’s work prior to reading this, but both JJ and I really enjoyed some of the poems that this mini-anthology has to offer; “Color”, “Wrens and Robins in the Hedge”, and “Where Innocent Bright-Eyed Daisies Are” were particular favorites. And Bryan’s beautifully intricate paper art is a marvelous companion to the poems, especially his bold choices concerning color, movement, and layout. However, the often-counterintuitive rhythms of the 1800’s poems make more than a few of them challenging to read at first pass, especially where rhymes are far better suited to the British pronunciation of words. There’s also the vaguely sexist undertones of poems like “If I Were A Queen” and “Mother Shake The Cherry Tree”, indicative of the time period in which they were written, to consider. The length was fine for a single sitting, and JJ loved the colorful art. Not sure if this one will go down as a favorite of ours, but it definitely has some gems to offer, and as such, is worth a look. So overall, Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

A Song For Gwendolyn Brooks (Alice Faye Duncan)

Hello, friends! Our book today is A Song For Gwendolyn Brooks, written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Xia Gordon, an appropriately poetic look at the life and work of the famed Pulitzer Prize winner.

Gwendolyn is a shy young girl, growing up in Chicago in the 1920’s. Other children her age play and yell and live out loud, but Gwendolyn is content to read, to observe, and most of all, to write. She fills journals with poems, challenging herself to compose one each day, reworking the ones she likes and burying the ones she doesn’t in her mother’s garden. Her poems are so advanced for her age (and, it is implied, skin color) that her teacher accuses her of plagiarism. Her theretofore-quietly supportive parents protest this, her mother having Gwendolyn compose a poem on the spot to prove her talent. With the encouragement of her parents, then later friends and husband, Gwendolyn continues to compose, write, study, and create, her work winning awards and accolades wherever it is published. In 1950, she wins the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, the first black person to do so – the shy young bud having grown into a furious flower.

Beautiful. Exploring Brooks’s life and work through poems – mostly free-verse couplets – Duncan invites the audience to share Gwendolyn’s voice in the telling of her story. Several of Brooks’s own poems are included in the text as well, and readers get a real sense of how much work and effort went into perfecting her craft (an element that greatly appealed to me; picture books about artists don’t often explore the WORK that goes into being great, only the talent). The art is wonderfully done, using a minimalist eye with rich, folksy tones that evokes both the art of the time and Brooks’s work and personality. The length might be better for slightly older bookworms, though JJ was engaged throughout due to the beautiful art and passionate verse. A beautiful tribute to a brilliant artist, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)