What the Heart Knows by Joyce Sidman

Heart knowsLynn:  It may seem as if Joyce Sidman has written a new book.  The truth is that she has created a key to our hearts.  Her newest book of poetry, What the Heart Knows:  Chants, Charms & Blessings (Houghton 2013) touched me deeply in so many ways.  I laughed, cried, smiled, nodded, sighed and winced.  These superb poems unlock emotions we all hold close and have held close throughout history.

In the opening Note, Sidman writes that throughout time we have “filled our lives with poetry from morning till night.”  We have chanted, lamented. blessed and cursed what matters most to us.  In the past we may have sung to avert catastrophe in battle or from the weather.  Today we still sing to keep away the many forms of darkness that frighten us, to celebrate love or cope with life’s challenges.  And, being human, we may curse those lost keys or invoke a good night’s sleep.  The book has four sections:  Chants & Charms, Spells & Invocations, Laments & Remembrances and Praise Songs & Blessings.  The poems within are a charming evocative mix of subjects from battered teddy bears to death to the sheer joy of riding a bike.  They come from and speak to every human heart, young or old.

Pamela Zagarenski’s ethereal illustrations are the perfect complement but I’ll let Cindy say more about those.  The opening quote from Mary Oliver probably describes this extraordinary book best:  “If you say it right, it helps the heart to bear it.”  Together, Sidman and Zagareski have said it right.

Cindy: It’s rare for Lynn to embrace a poetry book before me, or more tightly. But I’ve had to ease into this collection. I read it in a gulp on the first read and it did not move me. That was not the poet’s fault. It was the reader’s: mine. I think I read it standing, even, the first time. A second read was more leisurely. During the third I  picked through the poems I liked the most. I’ve read it several more times now and appreciate it more each time.

And now….well, I would have given anything to have copied down “Heartless” and slipped it through a certain boy’s locker vents years ago.

“Illness: A Conversation” reminds me of a friend recently lost.  And “When Death Comes” makes me weep:

It’s so far
from what
you expect:
the difference
a “heroic battle”
an actual blow
to the face.
The pain:
so blindingly
and vicious,
to wound in a way
you will never forget,
how you breathe,
leave the hollow air
with shock.
Even when you know
it’s coming,
it arrives
out of nowhere;
so quick,
so uncalled for
such a terrible
between before
and after.

The illustrations vary between spare designs and full page folk art with an air of collage to them. Zagareski’s mixed media and computer illustration art will be familiar to fans of a previous collaboration between poet and illustrator: Red Sings from Treetops, another Bookends’ favorite. This is a book to have in the classroom, by your bedside, or to give as a gift. Be patient with it. Slow down, sit down, let the words wash over you. Soak up the illustrations. Find one to share with someone your heart knows.

Common Core Connection:

Share examples of early ballads, poetry or other writings such as Timor Mortis or Invitation to the Dance or one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Ask students to select one of Sidman’s poems and compare and contrast the two works, discussing themes, or patterns.  Do they think modern readers still believe in the power of words to influence their worlds?  Cite examples.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.9 Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.

nonfiction-mondayThe Nonfiction Monday blog is a great place to read more posts about nonfiction titles for children and teens.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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