February’s Big Picture
The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice
by A.F. Harrold; illustrated by Mini Grey
Humorous poetry is strongly associated with children’s literature (think Dr. Seuss), but it’s also very difficult to create with freshness and audience appeal (think every bad Dr. Seuss imitator). It’s been a while since a new poetic humorist of merit made an impact on the U.S. youth literature scene, so this this collection of nearly 100 poems by British author Harrold, better known here as a novelist (The Afterwards, BCCB 3/19), is a welcome arrival.
The four broadly themed sections focus on food; animals and nature; school and knowledge; and miscellaneous, surrounded by liberal front and back matter disclaiming the advice therein, building on it, and providing a ridiculous index (“Boomerang: why democracy is imperfect”) the better to access it. The tone is wry, dry, and absurd, with a taste for hilarious bathos/pattern disruption in climactic moments and the occasional touch of gross (“The raisins/ behind a rabbit aren’t raisins”). The “advice” theme is very loosely adhered to (allowing for the inclusion of a few previously published poems), but there’s still plenty of imperative mood (“Never get a pet bigger than yourself”) and cautionary tales (“People who dab gravy/ on their wrists/ and below their ears/ get eaten by dogs/ more often than people who don’t”). A comic resigned fatalism runs through several entries (“There’s nothing you can do/ to alter the odds/ Nothing, no, nothing at all”—“How to Avoid a Giant Who Has Escaped from a Nearby Fairy Tale”), while others are brain-tickling as well as rib-tickling (“The Exaggerator”—“I used to aggerate/ all the time”). The publisher has wisely left the raft of British referents unaltered, so American readers will luxuriate in exotica such as sausage rolls and wild hedgehogs while recognizing the familiarity of rabbits and clouds and wordplay. Verse structures are sometimes clear forms with a touch of Shel Silverstein (“Perils of the Bouncy Castle”) or Douglas Florian (“Blackbirds and Bananas”), sometimes comic lumps or unrhymed declamations (“The Value of an Onion”), and every now and then a soft and lovely lyric (“Moon”—“You can see the sky through it/ like/ your mother’s heart/ through her frown”).
Grey’s vigorous mixed-media illustrations particularly excel at bug-eyed critters (or bug-eyed inanimate objects), but there are clever touches throughout (the diagrammatic illustrations for “Crosses” and “Knot Knots” include both real knots, like “Sheepshank,” and very, very unreal ones, like “Utterly Underhand” and “Ikidyou Knot”) that readers will want to take time to explore. Layout varies from full spreads to vignettes, cleverly controlling the pace of the poetic progression, and images frequently include a nattily attired bearded gent with a strong resemblance to our author, who usually seems less advice-giver than advice beneficiary as he jauntily rides a lizard, peacefully regards his picnic ants, or peers at the golden statue of “The Magic Onion of Derek.”
A collection such as this reminds us of all the many wonderful ways to be ridiculous; it takes readers back to the roots of humor while also playing with language in eyeopening ways. Lovers of the silly of all ages will glom onto this; grownups will delight in sharing irreverent takes with their kids, and older children will relish reading these to younger sibs. Even the less poetry inclined will proudly declaim, “That wasn’t a very good poem/ but I liked it when it stopped.” (See p. 264 for publication information.)
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Image from The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice © 2021 by Mini Grey, reproduced by permission of Bloomsbury.
Charrow Poojo’s Got Wheels; written and illus. by Charrow. Candlewick, 2021 [32p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781536210361 $16.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* 3-6 yrs
Harrold, A.F. The Book of Not Entirely Useful Advice; illus. by Mini Grey. Bloomsbury, 2021 [160p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781547606771 $19.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781547606788 $8.39
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 3-6
Heard, Wendy She’s Too Pretty to Burn. Ottaviano/Holt, 2021 [336p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781250246752 $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781250246769 $9.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 9-12
Hendrix, John Go and Do Likewise!: The Parables and Wisdom of Jesus; written and illus.
by John Hendrix. Abrams, 2021 [40p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781419737053 $18.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781683358572 $15.54
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 2-5
Marshall, Kate Alice Our Last Echoes. Viking, 2021 [416p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9780593113622 $18.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9780593113639 $10.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 9-12
Walker, Angharad The Ash House. Chicken House/Scholastic, 2021 [336p]
Trade ed. ISBN 9781338636314 $17.99
E-book ed. ISBN 9781338636338 $11.99
Reviewed from digital galleys R* Gr. 5-8