I have lots of little soapboxes scattered around my home that I like to pounce on in idle moments. Big soapboxes. Little soapboxes. Anyone who knows me is forced to hear me expound from one of them at least once daily. It's rare that I get to shove two of them together, though. Usually they represent separate entities that don't overlap. Picking up the remarkably gorgeous work that is Helen Frost and Rick Lieder's "Step Gently Out", however, allows me to stack one soapbox on top of another. That may make them a little more difficult to balance on, but with practice I'll have it down pat. From that perch I can then cry to the heavens above, "Why is there no poetry award for children's books given out by the American Library Association?" while also bemoaning, "Why has a work of photography never won a Caldecott Award?" Yes, "Step Gently Out" appears to be a double threat. Poetry meets photography in a single undulating poem. And if my soapbox seems strange, it will make all the more sense when you learn that the pair behind the book includes the remarkable poet Helen Frost and photographer extraordinaire Rick Lieder. Put them both together and you'd be a fool to overlook this book for any reason whatsoever.
"Step gently out," the book urges us. "... be still, and watch a single blade of grade." As we follow the words and instructions we are brought in close to a wide array of common backyard insects. An ant lifts its head from the center of a yellow flower and is "bathed in golden light." A spider weaves webs soaked in droplets and we hear that "they're splashed with morning dew". By the end we begin to understand them better and the text closes with "In song and dance and stillness, they share the world with you." A final two-page spread at the end identifies all the insects shown in the book and gives some facts about their lives.
Reading through the book a couple times I couldn't help but wonder if the photos came first or the poem. Did Ms. Frost see Lieder's work and construct just the right poem to accompany the images? After all, there are specific mentions of many of the bugs you'll find in the photographs. Or did Mr. Lieder read Ms. Frost's poem and then set out to find the right insects required to carry her vision? Or (a third idea just came to me) was this a case of an already existing poem and already existing photographs coming together by a clever editor, seeming to fit from the start? I simply do not know.
For parents wishing to instill in their children a sense of Zen, often they'll turn to something like Jon J. Muth's "Zen Shorts" and the like. A worthy choice, but if what you are trying to do is to give your kids a sense of communion with nature on its most basic and essential level, "Step Gently Out" is the better bet. I've always been a big fan of Ms. Frost's poetry, though often her medium is middle grade or early young adult fiction. It was in books like "The Braid" or "Diamond Willow" or "Hidden" that I could enjoy her clever hidden messages and original forms. "Step Gently Out" marks a distinct departure for her, partly because the single poem used here is so simple. With a large font that highlights each word to maximum effect, Frost taps into that moment when you stand in the presence of something as familiar and alien as an insect.
Part of the magic of Lieder's art is the balance between distance and intimacy. When we pick up a book of insect photography from some other children's book photographer like Nic Bishop we are brought nose to pincher with his subjects to a degree we would never find in real life. Bishop's books are novel for this reason, but from Lieder I learned that there's a real joy to be found in backing up a step or two. When we page through this book we look at the insects exactly as a child in her backyard might. The crickets and fireflies are no less powerful because they are the size you'd find if you held them in your hand and up to your eyeball. In their natural state they become somehow more approachable, particularly when you consider the gorgeous backgrounds they recline against. Not that there weren't surprising details to be found in Lieder's work. I had no idea the common yellow jacket was such a lovely vibrant little creature. Not that I'd want to get any nearer to it, of course.
The book pairs rather well with another insect/photography/poetry work for children. Certainly I will inform anyone who shows an interest in using "Step Gently Out" in their programming or lesson plans that the longer "Bug Off!: Creepy, Crawly Poems" by Jane Yolen, with photos by her son Jason Stemple, also would work. Of course that book has many poems in it. This book contains only one, but one is all that it needs. Folks may associate bug and insect books as ephemeral, deserving only a single reading and then moving on. This book in sharp contrast deserves to be read again and again and again. And hey, if it manages to get a bug-loving kid out there interested in a little poetry as well, no harm no foul. Steeped in lovely, through and through. I don't need a soapbox to tell you that.
For ages 3-8.