A Song About Myself, by John Keats, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Candlewick Press, $17.99, 40 pages, ages 7-9.
British poet John Keats (1795-1821) published fifty-four poems during his brief life, yet those pieces secured his place among the “second generation” of Romantic poets like Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe. Keats wrote the three-part A Song About Myself while traveling through Scotland and included it in a letter to his fifteen-year old younger sister, Fanny. The whimsical, cheeky verses about Keats as a naughty boy wandering the world are a departure from the poet’s better-known odes and sonnets. Keats describes the world outside of London and reveals that no matter where he is, some things remain the same.
So, how does an early nineteenth-century poem hold up in 2017? Not bad–the rhyming pattern is easy to follow (“There was a naughty Boy/ A naughty boy was he,/ He would not stop at home, / He could not quiet be –“), simple verses that quickly build into a playful ramble through the land to the north of London. Some words, like pother (a fuss) and rivetted (hold close) might trip up readers, but most of it is straightforward enough–this is a poem written by a feisty young man intent on making his reader laugh. Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka’s watercolors flow unencumbered through the pages, abstract yet thoroughly engaging, and expertly match this bizarre little road trip. (Don’t miss the end papers where a condensed map of New York and the British Isles begs close examination.)
A Song About Myself is a wonderful introduction to Keats and proving that some things just don’t go out of style.
Alphabetabum: An Album of Rare Photographs and Medium Verses, by Vladimir Radunsky and Chris Raschka; The New York Review Children’s Collection, $19.95, 80 pages, ages 5 and up.
Vladimir Radunsky spent years rummaging through bookstalls and flea markets around the world in search of black and white photographs from the turn of the last century. He found that many of the pictures had no identification, and had been pitched in trash bins. This book is his way of breathing life back into these portraits byimagining in verse the lives these cherubs led, suspended in time, dressed in their best clothes and posed against sumptuous backgrounds. Radunsky curated twenty-six images of children from his collection and asked fellow author (and Caldecott Medal winner) Chris Raschka to compose alliterative poems exploring the subjects’ possible personalities. These little verses create a fantasy world in this photo album-as-alphabet book. While it’s unlikely that children will actually learn their ABCs, images of boys in girls in outfits of long ago will likely inspire conversations about life in another era.
“Otter and Odder; A Love Story,” by James Howe, illustrated by Chris Raschka; Candlewick Press, $14.00, 40 pages, ages 5-7.
An otter falls in love with a fish that he might normally consider eating, and so begins this tale of discovering l’amour and the challenges of keeping an unlikely love alive.Author James Howe’s hallmark read-aloud style (for which he won the E.B White Read Aloud award for 2007’s “Houndsley and Catina”) is in top form, with breezy, rolling, flowing lines of poetic prose: “But when Otter gazed into those eyes – those round, sweet, glistening eyes, he knew that he had found what he had not known he was looking for.”Subtle humor throughout ensures that adults reading this will also smile during Otter’s journey to be with his beloved Myrtle.Standout pencil on watercolor illustrations are by Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka (“A Ball for Daisy”). They are deceptively childlike, almost appearing to have been completed on a whim. Yet closer examination reveals a master at his craft, who brings together elements of fanciful expression in vibrant hues and layers of texture that will appeal to multigenerational readers.