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Red sings from treetops: a year in colors by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
Houghton Mifflin, 2009

As a rule, I am not a lover of poetry. The only book of poetry I remember enjoying as a child is Shel Silverstein's Where the sidewalk ends due to its wit, creativity, and occasional weirdness, which fails to explain why I attempted to slog through Sir Walter Scott's epic The Lady of the Lake a few years later. In between, my grade 9 English teacher's apparent obsession with The cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service drove me batty - there is something about the rhythm and rhyme that I didn't like - and I haven't read that blasted poem since. The thing is, if there were poetry books like Red sings from treetops when I was young, I would probably not be so averse to the genre.

Sidman essentially weaves a tale of the colours of the seasons in a narrative told in verse. There is a sequential nature to the poems as later poems tie back to earlier ones: poems about white all describe it as a sound, and poems about green follow its prevalence throughout the seasons. This flow of the poems ties in nicely with the flow of the seasons and as a group as well as individually, the poems are lovely. There is no set rhyming scheme, length, or rhythm, so the poems vary but none are more than 10-12 lines.

Zagarenski's illustrations are stunning. They are a combination of mixed media paintings on wood and computer illustration, and are magical. All the people and animals who make their way through the seasons wear crowns, even the snowman. I find it difficult to describe Zagarenski's style here, as she combines patterns and textures and pasted newsprint in a way I have never seen before. It certainly lends an air of fantasy to the poems, and I am curious if she uses the same techniques in other books.

Lovely to read and beautiful to look at.

 
 
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Mirror Mirror: a book of reversible verse by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse
Dutton Children's Books, 2010

Fairy tales are told from two perspectives using the same poem, but read in reverse the second time.

Deceptively simple premise, yes? Well, Marilyn Singer has come up with over a dozen pairs of poems that tell parts of fairy tales using the same words and the same lines, in a style she calls reverso. In her words: "When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization it is a different poem" (last page of unpaginated book). Amazingly, it really works.

I'm glad I read this book today for a second time, because when I read it for the first time last week I wasn't a huge fan of it: it struck me as gimmicky and some of the poems felt awkward. I must have been tired or in a foul mood because today I really enjoyed it. Admittedly, some of the poems don't flow as nicely as I would have liked, but when it clicks all is well in the world. My favourites of the 14 reverso pairs are The Doubtful Duckling and Longing for Beauty, both of which deal with the characters' emotions (the Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast, respectively) as opposed to a description of events. In fact, the reversos in the book generally fall into one of those two categories: description of events and description of characters' feelings. Overall, I felt the ones that addressed emotions were more effective, but that may be my own bias.

I must comment on the illustrations by Josée Masse because they are, in a word, spectacular. Each illustration is divided into two to reflect the reverso poems on the opposite page, and Masse creates beautiful links between each pair of illustrations. For example, Sleeping Beauty's skirt blends perfectly into the hills being climbed by the prince coming to save her. The illustrations are luminous, full of rich golds and greens and reds, and combine perfectly with the poems.

For young students interested in poetry or fairy tales, this book will open their eyes to a challenging and fun style of writing.