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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Williams, Vera B. Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart; written and illus. by Vera B. Williams. Greenwillow, 2001. 72p
Library ed. ISBN 0-06-029461-2   $15.89
Trade ed. ISBN 0-06-029460-4   $15.95   Gr.3-5

It's hard to be a good poem and tell a story.

It's hard to balance verbal and visual images

so neither overwhelms or limits the other.

It's hard to create a memoir that fills the space

between picture book and middle-grade reading.

It's hard to be sad and happy at the same time.

In Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, Vera Williams does all of the above with an organic ease that nearly disguises the book's innovative nature-the book seems born to be what it is without self-conscious authorial effort. Her twenty-eight one-page, free-verse poems relate the daily events of two sisters often thrown together on their own as their mother works to keep the family together in their father's absence. We learn quite naturally through the children's arguments that Daddy forged a check and went to jail ("It is too stealing, Essie told Amber,/ and it's very bad"). Their lives are detailed poignantly but without sentimentality. They comfort each other by cuddling into a "Best Sandwich" with Wilson The Bear "right in the middle up against them both," and they befriend a new neighbor, juggle help from neighbors and extended family, and suffer dramatic ups and downs-literally, at one point, when they break a bed with overexuberant bouncing.

Integrated with the text are graphics as varied as these experiences. The opening full-color portraits and equally bright concluding picture album sandwich the body of the text in a tonal reflection of the girls' own "Best Sandwich." In both sections, striking colored-pencil lines accent the vertical and play sudden contrasts of hue against subtle blends. The first portraits show the backs of Amber and Essie first and then their faces, an arrangement that signals we will get to know these characters through a back door of action and dialogue that reveals their core of strength and joy. (The fact that their father is much loved despite the girls' inner conflict over what he has done introduces a complexity unusual in this compressed a story.) A heavy multicolored line extends through the text under each italicized poem title, tying together the full-color illustrations in the beginning and end. Facing a number of the poems are full-page, heavily outlined black-and-white drawings that echo the typeface and even seem to form a rhythmic visual extension from the black marks that form letters to the black marks that form pictures. An especially good example is "Sad Lullaby," in which one of the lines in each of three stanzas features extra space between words in a way that calls attention to the space in and around the picture opposite, which depicts Amber and Essie's mother "just sitting/ On her bed." Every poem ends with an unobtrusive diamond-shaped icon pointing the reader toward another page. The fact that such varied formatting and design does not call attention to itself but rather serves to unify effects for cohesive impact is a tribute to creative bookmaking.

Children's and young adult literature has, of course, been recognized for hosting a renaissance of graphic innovation, but the rise of poetic narrative is more surprising, given the generally conservative nature of juvenile literary forms. Essentially, a poem contracts and a story expands. Satisfying the dynamic of both at the same time involves a technical tug of war. William Merwin does it in his recent adult epic of Hawaiian history, The Folding Cliffs, but that's 325 pages long, with space to maneuver. Then there's Beowulf. The Odyssey and a few others spring to mind, but you notice they're pretty old-the fad for narrative poetry has perhaps faded in the world of adult literature. Books for children and young adults, though, seem to be hosting a revival of the form, with Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust (BCCB 5/01) winning a Newbery Award and Virginia Euwer Wolff's Make Lemonade (7/93) and True Believer (5/01) riveting critical and popular attention.

Perhaps it helps that stories for young people demand the same kind of compression poetry does. What many if not most children want, after all, is to find out what happens next; if it happens with rhythm and brevity, so much the better. Wolff says, in a Horn Book interview with Roger Sutton, that "meaning ought to radiate more fiercely in poetry than it does in prose. . . . Poetry should have more ergs per word." With that standard in mind, we can measure Vera Williams' achievement here by its compactness: an artistic mini-epic with two mini-heroes overcoming all odds of the inevitably bewildering, irrepressibly hopeful journey called childhood.

-- Betsy Hearne, Consulting Editor

Big Picture Image
September's Bulletin cover illustration by Vera B. Williams
from Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart,
Copyright 2001. Used by permission of Greenwillow Books.

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This page was last updated on September 2, 2001.