If the helicopter parents don't smother `em then the death of recess by test-minded schools will. Kids today have a heck of a time playing like they used to. Excuse me while I pull out my Crusty Old Fogey Hat which allows me to lament an era where kids gets their afternoons booked up and their free time minimized. I freely acknowledge that this is hardly a universal problem, but it does exist in some places. There are kids out there who would give anything just to run down their block without having to check in with their parents every five minutes. To them, I hand "A Stick is an Excellent Thing". A small picture book of poetry, Marilyn Singer taps into a kid's desire to be a kid (as well as an adult's sense of nostalgia, if I'm going to be honest here) to create a little world of fun. She is aided in her scheme by the multi-talented illustrator LeUyen Pham who not only brings this world to life but peoples it with kind, energetic, recognizable faces. The result is a book the celebrates games, playing, the great outdoors (no matter where you might be), and, in a roundabout manner, friends.
In spite of its "A Hole Is to Dig" type title, the book is more about the worlds kids create when they get together. In eighteen poems we see eighteen different ways to play. From mud soup to collecting fireflies, from swinging to plain old everyday sticks, these poems take a great thrill in showing kids at their best. Which is to say, having fun. Accompanying each poem are illustrations by LeUyen Pham. Where Singer creates the framework, Pham creates the world. Her kids exist in that bubble where adults are on the periphery, present when you need them, invisible when you don't. Through her art you not only get a sense of the game, you find it near impossible not to want to jump in and join.
The poems themselves are light, airy little things. Conflict really doesn't exit in them. The closest we get is a kid getting ready to find another in a game of hide and seek or the sudden cry of "You're a clown!" I might have liked at least one instance of a quieter sadder emotion aside from the relentless cheer found here. Even old Monkey in the Middle is seen as a fun time rather than the world's oldest form of teasing. But then, how easy is it to play a game with a tinge of sadness to it? At least there's "Hide and Seek" where a boy hidden in a willow tree imagines he's in Brazil amongst evocative daydreams of snakes and birds.
I liked that Ms. Singer included not just the games that kids will already know but the games kids tend to make up. I know that when I was a child we made up all sorts of crazy games with names like Barracuda (you may question whether or not it was inspired by the Heart song). In fact I wouldn't be too surprised if some kids try out the version of Statues found in this book. "A Stick is an Excellent Thing" isn't meant to be a guidebook but it might well end up fulfilling that purpose anyway.
Illustrator LeUyen Pham's job here was a near impossible one. It was up to her to conjure up this world of jump ropes and sprinklers with an eye on classic children's tropes. I'm talking about the stereotypical "good old days" adults are always bemoaning the disappearance of. A time when a stick could be a toy, consarn it! The problem with this is the fact that if you find books about American kids playing like this in older children's books, I can guarantee you that they'll all be white white white. So Pham has created an ethnically diverse cast of characters. Fortunately for us she gives them individual personalities, so that by reading the book over and over again you recognize them from one scene to another. Another difference from the days of yore would also be the fact that gender roles are generally left in the dust. Here you'll see skateboarding girls and boys who help turn the double dutch ropes. A relief, to say the least.
I spent a strange amount of time attempting to determine whether or not these kids lived in a city, the suburbs, or the country. Pham places her children in a safe world where they can run wild, impervious to harm. You will find no scraped knees, scary strangers, tears, or fears in her little world. Instead there are clean sidewalks ideal for jacks or jump roping, and grassy areas behind the houses where kids summersault down hills or capture fireflies, depending on the time of day. In the end I finally figured that Pham is creating a book that can appeal to all kids in all places. City kids will recognize the concrete places. Country kids will know what it means to go head over heels down a knoll or to use trees as hiding spot. She makes it universal, even as the poems do that in their own way as well.
What is the purpose of a book such as this? Is it meant to be given to kids with the intention of reflecting what they already know? Is it meant to entice them away from their video games and computer screens? For guidance I turned to the descriptive bookflap where it talks about the book and ends with saying that these poems "will make you want to hurry outside and join in the fun!" Certainly for the lonely child or the kid who does not make playmates easily this book offers a glimpse into a pastoral eden. Here kids flit about in a friendly manner without the imposition of adults. They play unencumbered by schedules or timetables. They just play and with good friends. Reason enough to celebrate, I think.
For ages 4-8.