Pros: Terrific poetry with consistent voice; creative and whimsical illustrations; they way they work together
Cons: None for us
I love to peruse poetry blogs. My eight year old daughter enjoys it too, and together we've discovered many wonderful books and authors in this way. One recent marvelous discovery was Emma Dilemma, a picture book with poems by Kristine O'Connell George and illustrations by Nancy Carpenter.
Let me just say right out: I love this book. Poetry books for children seem to be flourishing like a well-tended garden these days, so when I emphasize that I really love a certain title, that's my way of expressing how exceptional I find it. Everything about this book works, and works together in a coherent, pleasing way.
Poetry picture books by a single author often seem to fall into one of two camps: books that tell one story via one long poem, its lines spread out across page spreads (like Mary Ann Hoberman's Seven Silly Eaters) or collections of poetry, sometimes around a given theme or poetic form (like or Marilyn Singer's Mirror Mirror). Emma Dilemma is unique in that one author tells one story, but does so through a collection of poems.
The sub-title of the book is "Big Sister Poems" which gives you a clue as to the narrative voice O'Connell George uses. All of these poems are written from the perspective of Jessica, big sister to Emma (or as she sometimes calls her, in fondness or exasperation, "Emma Dilemma"). The girls seem to be about five years apart ~ I'd put them at around 4 and 9 ~ and as anyone who has ever had a little sister, or been a little sister, knows, the age difference can make the sparks fly. In good ways as well as in difficult ones: Emma causes Jessica all sorts of feelings, from merriment to annoyance to pride to embarrassment to worry to tremendous affection. All of these feelings and more are captured through the beautifully crafted poems and the equally creative illustrations, which add much to the story as it unfolds.
The poems are really a series of vignettes or snap shots of the girls' lives over the course of several months. The passage of time is important, not only to show their growth, but to give the author and illustrator the opportunity to celebrate sisterhood in different moments and seasons.
We're given glimpses of Jessica and Emma over the course of many ordinary days. In the poem "Soccer Game," which opens the book, Jessica describes the little girl in the bleachers, all dressed up in fancy dress-up clothes and screaming "Goooo, Jessica!" Her friends are laughing and "pointing at that little kid" but Jessica pretends "I've never seen/that kid ever before/in my whole entire life." We see her embarrassment in the way she hides her face on the soccer field, sending a quick glance toward the bleachers.
But Emma's exuberance and her love of dress-up - two characteristics that continue to shine through both the poems and the illustrations - are also sometimes cause for fun. There are moments when Jessica's big sister voice shines with pride in her little sister, and with enjoyment over their closeness: "Emma copies everything I do," she says in the poem "Role Model," and "Emma's hand is/just the right size/to fit/inside mine," she says in "Emma's Hand." In other poems, she prides herself on being "the only one/who understands/Emma language," and "the only one/who can remember/the names of all (Emma's)/rocks." She loves revisiting her old picture books when she reads them to Emma, and she manages to put up with endless repetitions of Emma's knock-knock jokes. She loves that Emma laughs at her jokes (so hard that milk comes out of her nose!) even when nobody at school does.
Those loving moments underline all the exasperated moments too: moments when Emma tries to scare Jessica by leaping out at her (wearing a cape and fangs), or when Emma borrows her sneaker to make a toy car on a morning when Jessica is late for the school bus. Emma does other exasperating little sister things like stringing yarn all around Jessica's room ("That little spider had better/unweave her web/before I/squash her," threatens Jessica) or hugging all the covers on a night she climbs into bed to sleep with her big sister because there are "huge monsters" in her room.
O'Connell George gives Jessica a wonderfully consistent big sister voice. My eight year old, an only child and closer in age to Jessica, laughed over the ways in which Jessica tries to guide her little sister - and I suspect children with siblings will "get" this book equally well or even better. There are great contrast moments, with Jessica having to clean up Emma's messes or Jessica suggesting a long, creative name for Emma's new stuffed duck ("Janey Green-Bill Sara Turnpike Eater-of-Snails Webbed-Feet Feather Fluff Duck") only to be defeated by Emma's short, pragmatic name: "Quack."
Carpenter's pictures are remarkable. They're pen and ink with splashy washes of color, and the expressions and movements of the girls (and on occasion their parents, who do come into the poems) are amazing. Emma is characterized by a perky smile, short brown pigtails, a body that skips, runs, rolls on the floor and hardly ever sits still, and a terrific array of dress-up clothes, from butterfly wings to princess tiaras to long, slinky gloves, ballet tutus and feather boas. Jessica, by contrast, is tall and slender, with long brown braids - energetic but far more controlled. She wears t-shirts, jeans, flip-flops, hoodies, her soccer uniform. And she longs, sometimes, for a little bit of privacy or some time with friends apart from her little sister.
That's the point that drives home the story told in the last few poems, when Emma's exuberance causes an accident that gets her hurt. Although Emma turns out to be OK (a broken arm) Jessica's guilt over not watching over her little sister is palpable. Their mother comforts and helps them both through the crisis, which cements the portrait of a loving family and the love between the two sisters. My daughter was awed that a series of poems could "connect" in such a way that they told a story - I don't think it had ever occurred to her that you could do that!
It's hard to know what our family loves most about Emma Dilemma - it's pitch-perfect poems that do so much to reveal voice and character, or its creative illustrations* that do the same, but in a different way. They go hand in hand (like Emma and Jessica) and I'm glad I don't have to choose.
*The illustrations are so good that this book is already on my Caldecott short list. My daughter and I have been doing a lot of sketching inspired by picture books, and this one provided us with a terrific drawing session!
By Kristine O'Connell George
Illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Clarion Books, 2011