Twelve poems (one per month) by John Updike, beautifully paired with illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman trace the paths of two families—and their cats and dogs—through a New England year in this Caldecott Honor book.
A while back in a comment on one of my children’s book reviews, literacy-chic wrote: “This is a general problem with children’s picture books that include verse. The verse is usually mediocre at best.” I’m glad to say that this is not a problem in this gem of a book.
John Updike’s poems are lovely with not a wrong step. Their simple rhyming quatrains are accessible to children and yet sophisticated enough to please adults—as is true in all the best children’s literature. They are easy to read and worth reading again and again and again, good when you have a toddler. There are fun games—every stanza in May uses the verb “may” once—but not enough so as to seem gimmicky. The imagery is rich but not obscure. The focus is on the seasons, nature, life lived out of doors, and on familiar holidays: St. Valentine’s Day, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas.
A flavor, from my favorite of the poems, November:
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
Displays a certain
The beauty of
The bone. Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod.
Yes, Updike doesn’t hesitate to mention church and God. Though it isn’t a religious book, it isn’t secular either.
The illustrations are gorgeous, lush, full of all sorts of details that will please the littlest readers. Bella loves pointing to all the animals, flowers, foods and familiar objects. For the adult, they are a New England travelogue. I have to confess, though, that when I was a child growing up in Texas this book might have puzzled me; its setting is so alien to the scenery there and the flow of seasons. But now it so perfectly matches the rhythm and color of my year with Bella. There’s the ice cream at the general store, the farm stand, the sledding hill complete with white steeple in the distance (well, ok maybe we aren’t up to sledding yet… maybe next winter, though), a visit to a farm to pet the sheep, a family cookout, a trip to the beach.
I’m in love with this book and—almost!—willing to read it as often as Bella is. This is a book to own because you’ll want to read it year after year, discovering new treasures every time you return.