Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dark Emperor & Other Poems of the Night

By Joyce Sidman
Illustrated by Rick Allen
$16.99, 4-8, 32 pages

An award-winning poet invites you to "smell your way among the trees" in this beautiful, evocative book about nature's night life.

"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," Sidman writes in her opening poem.

Sidman's verses embrace the sights, sounds and smells of the night woods, while Allen's block prints envelop you in the dark beauty of things barely seen.

Richly textured and stunning to look at, Allen's engravings show only what the moonlight or approaching dawn affords.

In one spread, the moon illuminates the filaments of a spider web as if dusted with fine glitter, and in another, the bold shadows of sunrise divide trees between darkness and light.

"Where are the pale scarves of clouds?" the moon laments, as the sun rises in the book's last poem. "Where are my ghostly shadows, / my pools of molten silver, / poured with such extravagence?"

Sidman, author of the Caldecott Honor-winning Song of the Water Boatman and Other Poems, describes the night woods as a "wild, enchanted park" where some of most humble creatures live.

Here you learn about the woodland snail, who slides up leaves "to their dewy tips" and spins morsels "into whorls of light," and the primrose moth whose wings open into delicate pink petals in the moonlight.

Every poem is tenderly written. In one poem a mother porcupine and her baby "mew and coo a soft duet" as the baby nurses; in another, a bat tumbles to his tree after catching his last bug, grasping at the bark to snuggle in.

At times Sidman shows drama unfolding. In her title poem, "Dark Emperor," she explores what it's like to be prey and you feel her compassion for this little creature.

Over the course of the poem, a mouse tries to scramble out of view of a great horned owl and is fully aware that the owl could snatch him up if it wanted to.

As the mouse makes his way through the forest litter, he sizes up the owl. High above him, the owl is like a "perched missile, / almost invisible."

His big, mesmerizing eyes, like "cool moons," swivel on his "sleek satellite dish" of a head and with every flying step, the mouse clings to the hope that the owl has turned its "awful beak away."

"Disregard the tiny hiccup of my heart as I flee," thinks the mouse in the last verse, written in smaller type off to the side of the poem near where the mouse has just hid.

As she's done so beautifully in other books, Sidman puts you into the soul of an animal or plant, and imagines what it would say if it apprehended the world as we do.

In "Cricket Speaks," a cricket waits with bated breath for "the trilling hour" of midnight, so it can "sing / sing, / till the branches tremble / and life / swells / to a single / searing, / unstoppable / sound."

Other times, Sidman speaks on its behalf, as in "The Mushrooms Come." On moss, loam, crumbling logs and musty leaves, "they shoulder up" and "loose their spores / with silent pops."

Each poem celebrates the intrinsic nature of the creature or plant, and many make your heart soar to a lofty place.

As you read the poem, "Oak After Dark," you feel as though you're peering inside the being of this tree.

"As nighttime rustles at my knee, / I stand in silent gravity / and quietly continue chores / of feeding leaves and sealing pores," the tree speaks.

Then like a familiar prayer, "…I do not rest, I do not sleep, / and all my promises I keep: to stand while all the season fly, / to anchor earth, to touch the sky."

For some animals, nighttime is a freeing time, to bound and play.

In the "Ballad of the Wandering Eft," immature newts in scarlet and gold step out of puddles to scramble about.

Every couple of verses, Sidman repeats the poem's chorus and you fancy backup singers joining in:

"For it's wild and it's windy / way out in the woods, / where the moss grows like candy / and the hunting is good, / where the rain falls from heaven / and mud's underfoot. / It's wild and it's windy / way out in the woods."

Sidman also finds lessons in the forest that are remarkably wise.

In "Night Spider's Advice," a nocturnal spider pontificates that life is a circle, so "just keep going around," and later, "see what falls in your lap, eat your triumphs, / eat your mistakes."

Each poem is accompanied by a short narrative about the forest inhabitant she's described -- and you feel grateful for it, for every poem piques our interest to know more.

This wonderful collection makes you feel like you've gone somewhere you could never go before: inside the essence of something that is inanimate or following along with something skittering about on the forest floor.

Together, Sidman and Allen are perfectly matched: one giving a voice to the voiceless, the other wrapping you up in the inky darkness in which each creature, fungus or plant lives.

And in the process, the chasm between human and animal thought drops away, and both animals and plants, though languageless, seem as though they commune with us.

If you like this book, don't miss Sidman's other new book of poetry, Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature's Survivors, illustrated by Beckie Prange, also from Houghton Mifflin.

Watch a book trailer of Ubiquitous below!


  1. Thanks for sharing about Dark Emperor. This is a great review, and I've enjoyed seeing all the reviews of the scary books you've done!

  2. I always love great rhyming children's poetry books. They are fun to read to my little one at bedtime. I wasn't familiar with this book, so thanks for sharing.

    Challenge School


  4. LOVE LOVE this book and the poetry!