As a child I had many favorite books and it was only when I got older that they crystallized in my brain enough so that I could chose a "favorite". But if you asked me today what book I loved more than any other, I don't think I'd be too off-base when I said it was Tasha Tudor's A Time to Keep. Now there are a couple of reasons for this. I liked how she drew cupcakes, I liked the corgis, and I particularly liked the idea of kids running around playing games and pranks each month. But the thing that stuck with me, and continues to stick with me after all these years, was the feeling I got when I read that book. It was my first encounter with the evocative and I've never quite forgotten it. It's something I like to keep a lookout for when I read picture books today. Generally, I don't quite find it, but once in a great while there's a book that hits all the right chords. This year, that book would have to be Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors. A follow-up of sorts to Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski's This is Just to Say: Poems of Apology and Forgiveness, Sidman and Zagarenski do what they can to conjure up what seasonal change feels like. It's nothing like their previous book, and everything you'd want in a poetry collection.
If you're going to write poems about the seasons, it's good to find a way to do so. Why not use colors then? Poet Joyce Sidman takes on the challenge, describing each season with a series of six or so poems, sometimes using the colors you'd expect (green for spring, of course) and sometimes using colors you wouldn't normally consider (gray for summer). The poems elicit thrills as they discuss the small moments that make a season feel real to a person. Watching moths flutter outside a screen door. The suddenness of a spring storm. The different shades of blue you spot on the waves of a lake or ocean. And in almost every picture a red bird flies high above, the Red who sings the seasons, one after another after another.
I don't actually know the story behind this book. A co-worker informed me that rather that lots of little separate poems this is actually a book that's just one big poem broken up into small sections. Maybe it's true, but that's not how it felt to me. While there was certainly a connection between one section and another (she doesn't just throw autumn into the middle of spring or summer amidst the cold blowing winds of December) they are separate little entities in and of themselves. Each little poem (if you see them as such) is a different color, and not always the color you might associate with a season. Pink for winter? Makes a lot more sense with Sidman tells you that "Pink blooms powder-soft over pastel hills." At the same time, colors repeat themselves. Pink also happens to be a spring color. "And here, in secret places, peeps Pink: hairless, featherless, the color of new things." The color is now the crisp cold morning light on the one hand, and the soft unprotected underbelly of a helpless creature on the other.
Generally I don't have much respect for summer. Don't get me wrong, I love it when I'm in it. But reading about it? Blah blah sand blah blah sun. So how much more impressive it is to me when Sidman brings summer to life (just as she does every season) in a way that doesn't rely on old tropes and overused phrases? When talking about a warm twilight she writes simply, "Purple pours into summer evenings one shadow at a time, so slowly I don't notice until hill, house, book in my hand, and Pup's Brown spots are all Purple." So she does a good summer, but the real test? How does she treat my favorite season of the year, fall? Well for starters she brings up the green that you see in the fall. "Green is tired, dusty, crisp around the edges." That is true. Brown rules the fall, red falls from the trees, and yellow becomes the school bus. Purple is the smell of, "old leaves, crushed berries, squishy plums with worms in them. Purple: the smell of all things mixed together." And finally, the great and powerful orange of Halloween alongside the black "resting in dark branches". Brilliant.
And of course, there are the pictures. Another co-worker of mine (they're an outspoken crew) found the fact that a lot of animals and people wear crowns in this book just a bit too twee. This is true. There is a crown on the main character, whosoever that person is, and on the animals as well. I agree that crowns can be considered twee (particularly when they hover over the baby birds' heads) but fortunately (A) I wasn't distracted by them until I was told to notice them and (B) I find them more fun than anything else. Crooked crowns like those worn by Jughead or Bugs Meaney are particularly cool. Besides, it takes a hard and hardened heart not to enjoy the illustrations in this book, which are not twee in the least. Now I'll confess to you that Zagarenski is working with mixed media paintings on wood (with computer illustrations for spice) and I am not always a mixed media fan. I tend to like my media unmixed, but this artist does a stand up job of conjuring up the very temperature of a season. Those black summers feel muggy and that fall so crisp. You come to trust Zagarenski's choices. So much so that even a whale in a night sky makes perfect sense in the context of its surroundings. You do not question these selections. She gives you no reason to.
The design is particularly pleasing too. The designers of the world simply do not get enough credit sometimes. Maybe this is all Zagarenski, but the poems really work beautifully within and with the illustrations. We've all seen those children's books where the picture book text has been dismissed to a plain white border, produced solely for the purpose of making the words legible. Here the words are readable and they always make sense that they crop up where they do. You wouldn't put them anywhere else.
From a purposeful standpoint I will sometimes get teachers or parents in my library looking for poetry collections that support the curriculum in one way or another. I had one woman come in looking for poems about shapes (it can be found, but it's not easy). Colors and seasons are similar requests, and I'm sure that there are children's librarians all over the country fielding such reference questions. Sometimes you have to rely on some dilapidated old title that just happens to be what you need. And sometimes, just sometimes, you can hand them something like Red Sings from Treetops secure in the knowledge that you've just introduced your patrons to something fabulous. The first time I hand this to a patron I know I'll be positively giddy and probably repeating "Have you seen it? Have you seen it? Have you seen it?" like a broken record. Beautiful in every possible sense of word, this is a book that engages both the heart and the eyes. Necessary purchase.