Sidman, Joyce. Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night. Illustrated by Rick Allen. New York, Houghton Milton Books for Children. 2010. ISBN 9780547152288
Sidman’s Dark Emperor is a wonderful collection of night poems…that happens to also be educational. Why do I add educational as an afterthought considering each poem’s facing page has interesting factual information about the subject of the poem? The fact is, it would be just as wonderful without the science lesson. For someone who likes poetry or nocturnal things (or both), as interesting as the information is, it is the poetry and the illustrations that hook the reader. This collection works well for all ages. It can be read aloud to young children. It can be used for elementary science classes. It can surprise older students with interesting facts about topics they thought they knew everything about. It can remind adults of when the night was both scary and the coolest think ever. The night hasn’t changed.
Allen’s relief and watercolor images creep, crawl, flutter, and grow beyond their simple black frame. Yet, despite the fact that these intriguing images cross their boundaries, they never intrude on the poetry (the small font facts wrap around the edges on several pages though). The images mirror the topic or voice of the poem. With one notable exception, the image with “Oak after Dark” which only made sense to me after I read the poem, the images quietly tell the theme of the poem without requiring the reader to read the poem. If there is a giant image of a spider, the odds are, the poem is about a spider.
The actual poems vary in type an length, but all lend themselves to being read aloud. Take “The Mushrooms Come,” for example. The phrase, “the mushrooms come” is repeated at the end of every stanza. Read silently, this line can easily be scanned over (especially in the last two stanzas where it is repeated twice). However, once read aloud it conveys a very different meaning. Suddenly, the phrase is the focal point. It’s the beat of a war drum. It lends the poem an almost sinister air (or if you happen to like mushrooms, it can be more of a solemn invocation).
Finally, let’s look at the facts. I mentioned earlier they are in small type and this is true, but they also have bold keywords that correspond to a small glossary in the back of the book. Each chunk of facts has something to do with the subject of the poem. Usually, there are some common facts, spiders spin webs out of silk they produce, alongside slightly more obscure but interesting facts, when orb spiders are done hunting they eat their webs. The facts ground the somewhat mystical poems and seemingly fantastical images. They remind the reader that these interesting things they are reading about are real.
Welcome to the Night by Joyce Sidman
To all of you who crawl and creep,
who buzz and chirp and hoot and peep,
who wake at dusk and throw off sleep:
Welcome to the night.
To you who make the forest sing,
who dip and dodge on silent wing,
who flutter, hover, clasp, and cling:
Welcome to the night!
Come feel the cool and shadowed breeze,
come smell your way among the trees,
come touch rough bark and leathered leaves:
Welcome to the night.
The night’s a sea of dappled dark,
the night’s a feast of sound and spark,
the night’s a wild, enchanted park.
Welcome to the night!
It may not surprise you to learn, this is the first poem in the book. It’s an effective and haunting introduction. Younger kids would likely have fun guessing what kinds of things will be in this book based on the words in this introduction. What flies at night? What chirps? What crawls? What comes out at night? For older kids (and teens) this poem presents a great framework. Three rhyming lines followed by a repeating line offers a not so impossible outline for a poem. They could write their own introductions to the night, or they could introduce something they enjoy (welcome to basketball, welcome to videogames, welcome to *insert least favorite class here*). The librarian can offer a welcome to the library. If they were comfortable enough, they could change the repeating line. The poem could be spooky repeating something like “I see you,” or sad with “The rain still falls,” or (to get back on a sports theme) “Swish! Nothing but net!”
Newbery Honor book 2011
Lee Bennett Hopkins Honor book 2011
“Sidman’s verse is sophisticated yet factual, each poem providing an excellent lead-in for the paragraph of prose information about the featured critter or thing, and there’s an entertaining play in mood as well as in style and form (readers will particularly warm to the light humor of “I Am a Baby Porcupette” and the slightly ominous inexorability of “The Mushrooms Come”)…This is a fine collection for classroom use at any time, but it’ll bring extra impact to those who can find a way to share it at dusk with the lights dimmed, watching through the windows as the nocturnal ballet begins outside.”
Stevenson, Deborah. The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books. 2010. (Vol. 64, No. 1) Accessed via CLCD at http://ezproxy.twu.edu:4529/index.php/jbookdetail/jqbookdetail?page=1&pos=0&isbn=9780547152288