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Out of Wonder

Ekua Holmes burst on the children’s book scene in 2015 with her phenomenal debut, the multiple award–winning — including a Caldecott Honor — Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (written by Carole Boston Weatherford). But she didn’t come out of nowhere. She was an established fine artist in Boston before she delved into the children’s book world. And aren’t we glad she did! Out of Wonder is the pairing of this extraordinary artist with poets Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth. They have taken for their inspiration the forms, themes, and rhythms of a slew of well-known poets, both ancient and living, and have created new verse inspired by their works.

Holmes brings the vibrancy of her layered, richly tactile collage to each poem, presented on double- or single-page spreads. While her media remains the same — collage made of homemade and boldly patterned papers with a dash of paint carefully thrown in — each illustration is as much an homage to the poet of inspiration as to the new verses that are on the page. And the starburst pattern, a signature element in Voice of Freedom, makes a return appearance in several images.

I love how Holmes manifests each inspirational poet’s cadence, rhythm, and thematic focus in her creative choices. On the two pages depicting “How to Write a Poem: Celebrating Naomi Shihab Nye,” two young people playfully dance with scraps of paper, from yellow-legal-pad sheets to gauzy homemade strips, as the verse describes writers metaphorically releasing their own poetic voice to dance. And we see echoes of loss and searching, so evident in Nye’s work, toyed with in these images. Are these young poets chasing after lost verse, or have they released their worlds into the world? Is it both?

We see Billy Collins’s everydayness in an extreme close-up of a bowl of oatmeal and spoon on a patterned tablecloth. We see Mary Oliver’s reverence for the natural world in a vertical, prayer-niche-shaped window, with puzzle-piece birds that fit together like stained-glass, all in tones of forest greens and sky blues. Gwendolyn Brooks’s blues-inspired, character-driven verse is reflected in Holmes’s richly hued illustration. Holmes layers a central figure of a black woman singing and playing the piano against sheet music painted in vibrant goldenrod and pulsating burgundy. The languid movements of the singer are contrasted by the energy and movement of the zigzag lines in the marbleized paper used to create her dress in lovely counterpoint. And the soaring verse of Maya Angelou is evident in the image of a woman who could be Angelou herself reaching diagonally across the double-page spread in gratitude toward the rising sun. This hope-filled and inspirational illustration is the sunniest and brightest of the lot, in jewel-toned colors and bedazzled with inviting circles, all mirroring Angelou’s legendary work “On the Pulse of Morning.”

While the Caldecott committee may find much to love in these expansively illustrated pages, there will be one question that they will likely discuss in regards to this book (and possibly others): Is it a picture book? And while definitions of picture books abound, I like to use a simple one: Are the illustrations essential to telling the story, presenting the information, or, in this case, visualizing the poetry? If so, then it is a picture book. If not, it is an illustrated book.

What it is going to boil down to is whether or not committee members can successfully argue that this is a picture book if there any differing opinions. Robin Smith brought up the picture book vs. illustrated book question when she reviewed Holmes’s Voice of Freedom for this blog before it won its Caldecott Honor. Will Out of Wonder raise the same questions? As Robin reminded us in that post, the Caldecott manual states:

“A ‘picture book for children,’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.”

I often think poetry and nonfiction are at a disadvantage in the picture book vs. illustrated book debate in Caldecott discussions. Works without a traditional narrative may feel like they lack “collective unity.” Holmes’s color palette changes from page to page, and her lines are loose and flowing on one page (see the Pablo Neruda spread) and tightly geometric on another (see the William Carlos Williams panel). Does this give the book a disjointed feel? Does this mar the “collective unity” of the project? I would argue that her change in style is in service to the book and its goal: to bring readers into each new poet’s world. A more matchy-matchy (to borrow a term from fashion) approach would not have supported this effort.

So back to our question: Is it a picture book? Are these illustrations essential to the work; do they provide a visual experience for children; do they have collective unity of concept? While I can read Alexander’s, Colderley’s, and Wentworth’s verse without Holmes’s art, can I grasp the full impact of the verse without them? With Holmes, I viscerally feel, without even looking at the verse, Chief Dan George’s deep and expansive love for the natural world in the full-bleed illustration of gauzy papers lushly layered in a forest scene; I sense the quiet introspection of Robert Frost’s work in a lone finger walking away from the reader and leaving nothing but tracks in the lacy snow.

So what’s your take? Is it a picture book? And while I am sure there is another Caldecott in the cards for Holmes, is this her year?

Read the starred Horn Book Magazine review of Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets.

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Rachel G. Payne About Rachel G. Payne

Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. She has written for School Library Journal, Library Trends, and Kirkus and was a contributor to Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos (2013) and Library Services from Birth to Five: Delivering the Best Start (2015). Rachel served as chair of the 2016 Caldecott committee and as a member of the 2009 committee.

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  1. Rachel, to answer your concluding query, I do feel OUT OF WONDER is a picture book, much as Paul B. Janeczko and Melissa Sweet’s FIREFLY JULY of a few years back was also in that categorization (seasonal theme rather than individual poets), where it was being touted as a strong contender for that year’s Caldecott Medal. I also feel that OUT OF WONDER is one of the most spectacularly beautiful picture books of this or any other year and that the extraordinarily gifted Ekua Holmes has eclipsed her superlative work for VOICE OF FREEDOM, a book fo course that won her a well-deserved Caldecott Honor. I understand that the subject matter in VOICE called for somber tones, textures and colors, and a sustained earthiness that called attention to the difficult life of its noble protagonist. With this book, it seems clear that Holmes is equally adept at pictorially transcribing life’s more sublime themes, fully attuned to each of the magnificent poems she interprets. The book is one of my supreme personal favorites of the year, absolutely in the top three or four, and at least a day or two of the week I am having it in poll position. For utter color-swirling resplendence it is comparable to MUDDY, but Holmes’ daunting task was to change course for every turn of the page, and what she has done here translates to a staggering achievement. Though the book is beautiful throughout (I adore the Dickenson (red roses), Hughes/Alexander, and Haiku spreads), she really takes the gloves off in Part III with a succession of ravishing tapestries that possess that “infinite variety.” The “Hue and Cry” (Gwendolyn Brooks), “Song of Ohuru” (transcribed by Mr. Alexander), “For Our Children’s Children” (celebrating Chief Dan George), the phantasmogorical watercolor design “Magestic”, with Mr. Alexander bringing Maya Angelou to the fore and the stunning cover illustration “Spin a Song” (celebrating Rumi) are my absolute favorites, with any one of these for me strongly contending for most magnificent single illustration of the year. All the emotions are visited in this soaring and bursting work, and Holmes has surely created a masterpiece.

    I guess the most important issue broached in your fantastic qualification piece here is the potential matter of the book possibly feeling disjointed. I strongly reject this myself and will opt to quote what you state here as precisely reflecting my own sentiments:

    “I would argue that her change in style is in service to the book and its goal: to bring readers into each new poet’s world. A more matchy-matchy (to borrow a term from fashion) approach would not have supported this effort.”

    I tend to be a bit biased towards picture books featuring poetry/literary works and figures, but this particular book leaves you breathless and awe-inspired in so many ways.

    OUT OF WONDER should bring Ekua Holmes her second medal, whether gold or silver. One of the very best picture books of 2017. I can’t get enough of this book.

    Thanks again for this terrific review.

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    I always struggle on whether to include collections of poetry on the consideration list for our Mock Caldecott workshop due to the reason you mentioned. Are they picture books and not illustrated books? This book is one I’ll definitely include this year. Not only are the illustrations effective and impressive, but the variety of page layouts is great. From full bleed double-page spreads to one-page bordered illustrations to illustrations that swirl around text, this is a feast for the eyes.

  3. Rachel Payne says:

    Sam, thanks for your passionate comments in favor of this book. So glad to read that you’re on team Ekua and team poetry!

    Susan, yay! I am delighted you are including it in your mock discussions. Real committees have struggled with the picture book vs illustrated book question (Hugo Cabret I’m guessing) so it makes sense to include books that may spark debate in mock discussions.

  4. I loved the composition of and the emotion behind the illustrations in this book. Each image is paired perfectly with the text, and expresses the energy or quietude of the verse. I admire, too, the lack of literal interpretation – which is perfect for poetry.

    I will admit, though, that this is a book I’m torn up about. I loved the illustrations – which is great for Caldecottness – but found the poetry flat and uninspired (quite the opposite of what it sought to achieve). Five enthusiastic, exuberant stars for Holmes, one star for the content.

  5. Brenda Martin says:

    I’d like to add my voice to Joe’s opinion about the strangely lackluster poetry, especially given the contributors’ pedigree. I don’t think I’d say one-star, but it certainly didn’t consistently dazzle me like the illustrations did. I was also bothered by Alexander’s name being so largely featured on the cover illustration when the other two poets contributed just as much to the content. I understand this is not uncommon when featuring a “known entity” over the others, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

  6. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and thorough piece. I find Out of Wonder to be beautiful and inspiring. I like the poetry because it feel subtle and subdued so as to not outshine the poets being written about, and to entice us return to the poets’ works. The illustrations, on the other hand, struck me from the very first glance as gorgeous. I’ve tried to think of another word to use and can’t come up with any – they just feel inadequate. I’ve admired Ms. Holmes work from the instant I saw ‘Voice of Freedom’. I went back to the works of most of the poets and found that the illustrations capture the spirit and essence of the poets’ work, and definitely enriched my emotional response to them.

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