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Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems

Before we start chatting about specific 2014 picture books, take a moment to read the Caldecott criteria. They’re posted over there on the right, but I will help you find the important parts. Here they are, in part:

In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:
  1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

Tattoo those categories onto the inside of your eyelids so you will understand why, when we talk about books, we stick to the same points over and over. We have to. The committee discusses all books in light of the published criteria, and the chair keeps everyone close to these five main ideas. 

janeczko_firefly july2It’s tricky to start our discussion this year with a collection of poems, because it brings up the age-old question of whether this is a picture book or an illustrated book. I refer you to the definitions. Let’s just agree (for the moment, at least) that this fits the definition of a picture book as it is essentially a visual experience. Feel free to say otherwise in the comments. That’s just not where I want to go at the moment.

This handsome volume presents 8 to 10 poems per season and, just as the subtitle says (“A Year of Very Short Poems”), each poem is very short. This gives the volume a clear arc and allows the illustrations to gently explore how color and line might change over the course of a year, as the seasons unfold. The paper cover and the case cover are the same, and the endpapers are a lovely muted blue. Though I am generally a fan of flashy endpapers, it makes sense that these are calm, given the energy that illustrator Melissa Sweet brings to each spread.

Spring is the first season, and the first page is a celebration of spring things, including a robin, which I love. There are also daffodils and other early-spring bulbs blooming. The small poems march on, but it is the illustrations that hold them together. As we move to summer, the Langston Hughes poem “Subway Rush Hour” is made summery by the bouquet of daisies that accompanies it. Summer moves on and the colors change as the leaves fall. The transition is seamless; indeed, the divisions between the seasons are subtle and easy to miss, much like the artificial dates on the calendar that mark the change. By wintertime, the hues have completely changed–darkened by the lack of sun, yet whitened by the presence of snow.

Sweet’s art, a joyous combination of watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media collage, tells each poem’s story while allowing the young reader to consider each poem for herself. Her use of color and line build each illustration, sometimes joining two poems (such as” Fog” and “Uses for Fog”) together on a double-page spread, other times allowing the gutter to divide the scenes. The art is completely appropriate to the collection; indeed, it’s her illustrations that make these poems accessible to the child audience (and here the audience could be as young as 3 and as old as an appreciative adult). The mood is set by the illustrations, and Sweet does not bore the reader with trite homages to each season–she requires the reader to look deeper at each spread and think about the connection to the words.

I just looked up the part of the definitions about the term “distinguished,” and here that is:

  1. “Distinguished” is defined as:
    1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    2. Marked by excellence in quality.
    3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    4. Individually distinct.

Most of the books we will talk about this fall and winter are distinguished, and this one certainly is. Each spread is filled with emotion and care, with design meshing seamlessly with color and line. There are many places to look, but it never looks busy or overdone, as each page turn creates its own little world.

Though the real committee can (and will) compare this book to Sweet’s other 2014 title (The Right Word), I have found it difficult to do that in a single blog post. So, feel free to compare if you wish, but know that Martha will be talking about that one soon. For me, I cannot choose between these two very special books. Perhaps Sweet will “pull a Klassen” and receive two phone calls from Chicago in January.

 

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

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Comments

  1. “Sweet’s art, a joyous combination of watercolor, gouache, and mixed-media collage, tells each poem’s story while allowing the young reader to consider each poem for herself. Her use of color and line build each illustration, sometimes joining two poems (such as” Fog” and “Uses for Fog”) together on a double-page spread, other times allowing the gutter to divide the scenes. The art is completely appropriate to the collection; indeed, it’s her illustrations that make these poems accessible to the child audience (and here the audience could be as young as 3 and as old as an appreciative adult).”

    Well Robin, you certainly have incorporated the committee’s general criteria into your beautifully-written assessment of the book’s arresting illustrations, which certainly are imbued with the seasonal temper. I happen to think that Melissa Sweet is one of our greatest illustrations (like so many others I can never get enough of her work) and she several of her books are favorites with the kids – this and BALLOONS OVER BROADWAY especially. FIREFLY JULY is a masterpiece -for me it rates a tiny edge over THE RIGHT WORD, but tomorrow I might put it the other way around. I also feel that FIREFLY JULY fits comfortably into the four-pronged definition of the term as applied to picture book contenders. To pose an oft-used phrase–this book is ravishing for adults and for the kids in the classes. Again, I love this wonderful review and criteria tie-in! Great stuff! 🙂

  2. Robin you have such a talent for capturing what makes each outstanding book unique. I appreciate the time and energy that you put into your blog. I know that being a devoted teacher is all consuming–especially at the beginning of the school year. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, thoughts, and wisdom with us.

  3. I love Melissa Sweet. And I love your Caldecott blog!! Yay — you’re back!

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    And soon you will hear from Lolly and Martha, too. SO fun to be back. Thanks for stopping in.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Hope,
    I think this will be a great book for your school library. I am glad to see you here!
    Robin & co.

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    You will have lots of choosin’ to do when we talk about THE RIGHT WORD!

  7. A beautiful review of one of my favorite books of 2014. I would absolutely LOVE to see Melissa Sweet get the recognition she so deserves. “A River of Words” has always been one of my favorites, so I was amazed that she surpassed even that with “The Right Word,” a book my children have been pouring over since I brought it home a few weeks ago. But I agree that “Firefly July” might trump everything. It is remarkably more subtle than her other works, less detailed, but perhaps more poignant because of it. She lends a visual interpretation to these poems that helps each reader, young and old, better understand and connect with them, while at the same time opening our minds to the wonder and possibilities of poetry as a genre.

  8. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Well, shoot, I wish I had written those words! Wow.

  9. I’ll go there with the whole “PB/illustrated book” talk, even though nobody is arguing whether or not FIREFLY JULY is or isn’t at this time. If we say that in a PB there is a visual component that is essential, why do so many believe that the experience has to be MOSTLY through the pictures? To me, “essentially” is not the same as mostly. There is no ratio of illustrations to text that make the illustrations take over and then voila: picture book. As long as there is a visual experience in which the pictures are crucial to that experience (collective unit of story-line, theme, or concept developed through the series of pictures, etc.), we have a picture book. Right? Maybe it’s just me.

    Anyhow, I love all of your points here, Robin. What really sticks out to me is how (as you put it) the art makes the poems accessible. The illustrations might aid in comprehension (What is a sandpiper? Oh yea—it’s a bird. I know that thanks to the art!) and create visual springboards from which readers can start their own interpretations. They can help children mind the gap between the literal and figurative (“welcome map of midnight” as scaffolding on page 45, for example). This has “excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience” all over it. It is through the pictures that this book is understood as something more than just the collection of poems within. Sure, we could have just listed the same poems with different artwork and they would still be those same poems. But what makes this book shine is that the pictures are so important to comprehension and/or the seasonal concept in all of the ways that you’ve so eloquently described.

    I did have one question about page numbers though. When I first noticed that numbers weren’t on every page, I tried to find some consistency. I discovered that sometimes pages with poems on them are numbered, other times they are not. Sometimes even pages are numbered, sometimes not. My only guess is that page numbers were included when they could be seen easily and when they did not infringe upon Sweet’s compositions. From an ease of use standpoint, this is one aspect of the book I can’t get off my mind.

  10. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Hmmm.
    Thanks for your thoughtful and thought-provoking reply, Elisa. I especially loved the point you made in the third paragraph. “Sure, we could have just listed the same poems with different artwork and they would still be those same poems. But what makes this book shine is that the pictures are so important to comprehension and/or the seasonal concept…”

    I have to admit, I never noticed the page numbers at all. Maybe it’s because I review a lot of picture books and rarely are they numbered or maybe I just wasn’t tuned in. As one of my school tasks, I help with the yearbook. We put page numbers where we can and leave them off when we think they distract or will not be seen (because the background is black or dark, for example.) As I look through the book, I can usually see where the number would get in the way of the composition or would be muted by black or dark brown. There seem to be enough guideposts along the way to help a young reader find a particular poem, though. I think I am going to have to think about this more.

  11. You talk about how the divisions between the seasons (in Sweet’s illustrations) are seamless and easy to miss (just like on our calendars). I also love how she incorporates the words (“Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter”) into the spreads in seamless ways. “Summer” is made up of wispy clouds, and “Spring” bursts forth from the ground in flower form.

    And I love that this post made me go grab this book to explore even more. It’s been a while.

  12. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I really like the choice of poems, too, Jules, though I imaging the committee will mostly dwell on the illustrations. Some of the poems were brand new to me.
    I can’t wait to talk about THE RIGHT WORD. But I will wait.

  13. I pride myself on Not being a grown-up critic. When I open a book illustrated by Melissa Sweet I am amazed over and over (and returned to childhood), by her sensitive, whimsical, and intuitive child-like interpretations that are anything but naive.

    Sweet’s illustrations are an illuminated bridge between word, thing, and action. Firefly July is great, but I was stunned when I received the new book about Roget. Every page is a visual feast. I love watching children find hidden treasures and dwell on them.

    Thanks for doing this post!

    Cheers,

    Sharon Lovejoy

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