God got a dog

godgotadogGod got a dog

by Cynthia Rylant, illlustrated by Marla Frazee

Beach Lane Books, 2013

Cynthia Rylant is a visionary, the sort of author who seems compelled to challenge literary constructs, and herself, ever in pursuit of some deeper truth that she needs to express. At least she has always seemed like a visionary to me, judging by her extraordinarily varied, generally innovative and uniformly personal body of work. Whether it is the Newbery-winning Missing May, with its put-your-head-on-the-desk heartbreak, the bold sweetness of her self-illustrated picture books like Cat Heaven and Dog Heaven, or the inspired, uncommon poetry of Boris or Something Permanent, her work transcends the expected in order to achieve the basic. In 2003 she published God Went to Beauty School, a collection of page-long poetic essays, each about God undertaking some commonplace activity, from opening His own nail salon to cooking spaghetti. These episodes, in their essential combination of the mundane and the sublime, express a rainbow of grace. In this year’s God got a dog a number of these poems is recollected and illustrated by Caldecott-honor illustrator Marla Frazee, who brings her own generous accessibility to the project. Frazee adds to the flavor of the book. Hand-lettering contributes a sense of innocence. Light permeates each tableau. But most striking is her casting of God in each episode. Rylant’s work already used both female and male pronouns to refer to God, but Frazee takes the plurality a step further, diversifying the personifications of God as much as possible: old and young, big and small, country and city, race after race. None of these updates represents a huge departure from the tone and intention of the original work. This new books, like its predecessor, is a soft, welcoming meditation on the sanctity of our daily lives and the reflection of the divine in simple things (even if those reflections are upside-down). But there is whimsy in this new package, a luminous, bubbly sort of warmth that unifies the different experiences and personifications, softening the edges and opening the doors. Rylant’s God is us, and Frazee’s us is God, and there you have it.

Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things

“Emily Dickinson is the perfect thing to hand to a 16-year old girl,” advised fellow blogger lynchlibrarian recently. What is it about Emily? Indeed, I was 16 when I purchased my paperback copy of her complete works (at the local Borders bookstore, my idea of the cool hangout spot), and I vividly remember discussing “Success is counted sweetest” in my high school’s U.S. Literature class. Certainly I considered her words earlier and later in life, though not by much: an eager seventh grade teacher chalked “I never saw a moor” on the board for the daily quote; in my second year of college, fellow English majors and I spent the better part of a class dissecting the differences between her 1859 and 1861 versions of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (the power — of a dash!).

So what is it about Emily that resonates during young adulthood? While increasingly introspective teens may be intrigued by her famously reclusive habits, it’s her words that truly inspire. At a time when teenagers feel pulled between their past and future selves, her voice simultaneously offers innocence and wisdom. As they encounter the terribly great problems of the world and personal decisions to make, her subject matter rings with the impossible brightness and darkness of life’s great questions. Through succinct, tender verses, Emily provides young people with a “nugget of pure truth” to grasp in their hands and hearts. (My Virginia Woolf obsession came later in life.)

  Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson   Emily's Dress and Other Missing Things

If young people miss out on enthusiastic teachers reading Emily’s poetry aloud, I’m happy to know they may also discover her in the pages of fiction. Jacqueline Woodson’s beloved Feathers (Putnam, 2007) perfectly pairs “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” with a story that examines the power of friendship over divisions and discrimination during the 1970s, a fragile, precariously hopeful time in our nation’s history. What a perfect story for a 12-year-old.

For older readers, Kathryn Burak’s novel Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things (Roaring Book Press, 2012) explores Emily’s darker side. After experiencing personal tragedy, Claire and her father attempt to start fresh by moving to Amherst, Massachusetts, the home of Emily Dickinson. Claire is a poet herself  and finds herself drawn to Emily’s words, rich with poignant examinations of death, and to Emily’s house, now of course a museum where Emily’s personal belongings are artfully arranged for tourists to view. As if in a creative trance, she breaks in, night after night, to write while wearing Emily’s white dress — until the day the college-aged student teacher Tate discovers her. Instantly linked by this strangely intimate crime, they run, stealing the dress in the process. Burak’s poetry is the star of this novel, both in the actual verses Claire writes — the portals by which she gradually shares the tragic details of her past — and in the crisp, shimmering prose of Claire’s narration:

The smell of snow on the winter air fades. I take a deep breath. I smell paper. Here I have the cool, clean feeling of paper, too.

I am so glad to get away. To be in Emily Dickinson’s house.

With a frigate like this book, the reader will certainly agree.

Make Magic! Do Good!

make magic

Make Magic! Do Good!

by Dallas Clayton

Candlewick, 2012

We who work at the Butler Center have the privilege of opening up new packages of books nearly every day, sometimes fresh from the press. Books get stacked, fiction and non-fiction become intermingled, and it is easy for a wonderful book to get lost amidst the chaos. But then each book is picked up and entered into our system. I always look at each book as a new experience, a wonderful possibility for my next read. But then I move along because, well…it’s my job to.

Yet, sometimes the reader inside gets the best of me, and I find myself lost in a book. It is a rare occasion, because I am a very diligent worker, but sometimes a book grabs me so tightly that I have no chance of becoming free until I turn the final page. This recently happened to me here in the Butler Center with Dallas Clayton’s 2012 book of poetry titled Make Magic! Do Good!

Sometimes quiet, sometimes loud, sometimes joyful, sometimes gently sad, this book respects the child reader and understands that he or she experiences profound, deep feelings just as much as grownups. There are forty-nine poems in the collection, all illustrated in a simple, sketch-like style with vibrant colors and dynamic expression. About the artistic medium, the front matter states, “The illustrations were done in two parts positive vibes and three parts watercolor rainbow sprinkles.” This captures the whimsical, creative, playful spirit of the poetry. The silly poems, such as “Amanda the Panda” and Xavier Xing Xu” wholly encapsulate the spirited, snappy mind of a child. Clayton’s humorous illustration note does not demonstrate the incredible emotional depth several poems communicate. One of my favorites is titled “Slumber,” and it’s only four, simple lines:

You won’t know all the answers

You won’t get everything right

But once you learn you don’t have to know ‘em

You’ll sleep the best at night.

The illustration accompanying this poem is a big, pink animal, fast asleep in a bed covered in a blue and orange starred comforter, and the vast white space comforts the eye. I opened this page, experienced both text and image, and I had to experience it again. As a person who struggles with perfectionism and anxiety, this poem is the perfect mantra for peace. What a lesson to learn, and absolutely beautiful that Clayton is telling it to children.

It doesn’t stop there. Clayton’s honest poems and imaginative illustrations include topics as varied as enemies, decision-making, love, sharing, friendship, money, and the potential end of the world, and he tackles them with vibrant energy, poignant honesty, and joy. And there are some pretty darn silly ones along the way.

I haven’t been stopped like this by a book here at the Butler Center in a while, but Make Magic! Do Good! certainly shouted my name that day and echoed in my heart and mind for the days and weeks to come. In a world that we all know is filled with bad stuff—violence, sadness, sickness—it is lovely to find a book filled with message of hope, love, strength, silliness, honesty, warmth, and peace, peace, peace.

Please watch this animation based on the book, and listen to the profound poem that closes the work, the title poem of the collection, Make Magic! Do Good!