Jun 12, 2020

Dictionary for a Better World: Letter by Letter

Covid update:
"Openings" from Safer-at-Home policies have varied, based on communities, states, and lawsuit results. It's been a solid two weeks since Memorial Day. Since then, openings are ubiquitous, including a wide range of cautionary recommendations and an even wider range of non-compliance with those guides. In recent days I've heard that numbers of Covid-19 are rising-- in positive test results, in hospitalizations, and in deaths. 
I have no words for the frustration and fear I feel at the prospect of SO MANY people deciding that "it's over", that they "need" to get out into crowds, ignoring simple cautions when they do.
The stock market had been ignoring economic and science cautions, leading to record highs this week. Until yesterday, a day of reckoning and drastic losses after forecasts of slow, lengthy economic recovery were announced by top officials. Just imagine the reaction when (not if) Covid-19 returns with a vengeance: with a change in seasons, with unhealthy choices, and with the backlash following false assumptions that it is gone.

BLACK LIVES MATTER protests update:
Two weeks ago George Floyd's murder under the knee of a uniformed police officer was recorded by a bystander. Since then a nationwide protest response has expanded globally, with powerful consequences still unfolding. In those two weeks I've had many important conversations. I hope to have many more. I've viewed, listened to, and learned from videos and people whose voices have not been heard in the past, at least not outside a powerless echo chamber. In recent days, I've been reading predictions about a potential "White Backlash" coming. I will continue speaking up about the need to open doors, windows, minds, and stories more widely in order to counter any efforts to slow the momentum of this movement.

Anyone reading this as it posts live will wonder why I would bother adding a note about something(s) so self-evident. I've been writing these posts for nearly a decade now. I'm including these introductory comments for myself or others who could return to posts in the future, reading with my perspective in the moment in this time in history. I find that these current global and local forces affect my choices and reflections about which picture books to feature here. My notes are also a way to preface my book thoughts that follow.

Carolrhoda Books

DICTIONARY FOR A BETTER WORLD: Poems, Quotes, and Anecdotes from A to Z is the second writing collaboration between poets  Irene Latham and Charles WatersIllustrations are by Mehrdokht Amini.  
These two authors first opened a poetic dialogue in CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR? Poems of Race and Friendship (2018). There, they used alternating poems in the voices of a young white girl and a young black boy, an exploration beginning with curiosity and cluelessness, but growing into an accepting and affectionate friendship. 
DICTIONARY FOR A BETTER WORLD features  poems from alternating poets (with related quotations from others and memoir-like reflections by the author for that particular poem/theme). Each poem adds a note about its form/structure, and each full spread provides an inviting challenge to "TRY IT", suggesting simple acts or reflections that readers might try for themselves.

That may sound like a heavy burden for one book, but this "dictionary" is uplifting. The book design elevates its appeal with the gorgeous artwork and visual interpretation on each spread. A Table of Contents offers the scaffolding on which this wonder is built. Poems are listed alphabetically with several letters launching more than one theme and spread, including such timeless topics as ALLY, DREAM, GRATITUDE, SHERO, and WONDER, among a total of forty-eight explorations. Back matter includes authors' notes, references for quotations, recommended books, poetry-writing resources and forms, and acknowledgements listed as gratitudes. 

I read this two different ways. First, I dove in from cover to cover, moving through more quickly than I would recommend. I tend to devour favored foods (think pizza, fresh melon, etc.) so fast that, after the last bite, I'm feeling overstuffed. It's a pattern I work to curb, but not always successfully. In this case, I was eager to get a sense of the WHOLE, knowing I'd return to taste it another way after I reached the last page. 
I have no regrets about the approach, because I found it to be delicious, even if it was a lot to digest in one sitting. The choices of topics/themes for each letter are mindfully sequenced, each building on the body of thoughts that came before. In their earlier work the poems collectively revealed a story of friendship. A dictionary is not intended to tell a story, and yet within its pages are all the stories one could choose to tell. This dictionary offers that same wealth of emotional and social vocabulary to write and revise our own stories.
Taken individually or as a whole, this book offers timeless and universal inspiration, but is particularly suited to the current times. Here's an example, from Charles:

EMPATHY     (Acrostic Poem)
Ears open
Mouth closed
To the other person
Helping them know
Yes, they matter.

"Even though I didn't think I'd like empathy it kind of creeps up on you and makes you feel all warm and glowy inside. I don't think I want to go back to a life without empathy."
Kathryn Erskine, MOCKINGBIRD

Charles says...
(He shares details of a painful incident in high school in which he was hurt by a teacher's comments, with a reflection on the way a trusted teacher helped him through it.)

(Simple suggestion about ways to handle others who gossip, about you or someone else.)

Before you get worried that the topics are all introspective and intense, the options include:
LAUGHTER, ZEST, EXERCISE, HOPE, and YES. The range is  impressive and wide-ranging enough to serve as conveniently as any dictionary, a book to keep on hand to weave poetry, inspiration, and fun into every day life. The poetry forms and back matter tips make this mentor text of the best kind, providing excellence in example and clarity in directions.

I hope you'll take a look at this book. it is much longer than a typical picture book, but one that provides material to spark conversations, encourage exploration of poetry  reading and writing, and provide a wealth of comfort and joy. 
Sounds pretty good about now, right?

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