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  • It's (Not) All Small Stuff:The 2009 Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry
  • Michael Heyman (bio), Angela Sorby (bio), and Joseph T. Thomas Jr. (bio)

As the planet approaches peak oil production, the judges of the Lion and the Unicorn Poetry Award wonder if we have already passed peak poetry production. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the award, yet the number of poetry books contending for it was appreciably lower than in previous years. Adjusting to a smaller field has its rewards: we can cull the best of the best without wading through oceans of effluvia. This year's stellar collections include Marion Dane Bauer's The Longest Night, Heidi Mordhorst's Pumpkin Butterfly: Poems from the Other Side of Nature, and Andrea Cheng's Brushing Mom's Hair. In a "normal" year (and we trust that this year is not the new normal!) these would be candidates for the award, yet we suspected, and our research confirmed, that many of the children's poetry books published in 2009 did not reach us—including, for instance, new work by a past honoree, Helen Frost. Therefore, after some collective soul-searching, we decided not to pick a winner this year. If the field of children's poetry is indeed shrinking along with the national economy, then surely those books that are published must be vigorously promoted, so that they make it into the hands of teachers, librarians, parents, children—and yes, contest judges. That said, even this year we enjoyed a reduced but still dazzling array of poems: some timid, some bold, some mediocre, some good, and a few real stunners.

In addition to judging the contest this year, judge Angela Sorby also happens to be editing a collection of nineteenth-century children's poetry. She notes that some of the collections in this year's group hearken back, seemingly unconsciously, to older commercial traditions, including textbook didacticism and "nature-study." Nineteenth-century "nature study" poems tended to be reverent, faintly educational paeans to grasses and herons. Jane Yolen treads this worn path in A Mirror to Nature: Poems about Reflection, [End Page 354] representing nature as a prelapserian Eden. Now, picking on nature poetry is akin to fishing by electric shock: it's too easy, and it doesn't stop their eventual swimming along. Nevertheless, we feel obliged to pick on Yolen's book, if only a bit, for the sake of contrast with the others. Yolen takes on the potentially rich conceit of the "mirror" in nature, but doesn't fully explore its possibilities.1 The red-tail drum, for instance, "has moves in the water galore," and the raccoon is the "children's darling" (30, 10). We are also reminded that "A deer that stays / too long / reflecting / is a deer called / meat," and this uninspired conclusion comes after the homophonic obviousness of the opening line, "Oh dear, oh deer" (17). To make matters worse, a factoid is attached, like a hangnail, to each piece, such as the enlightening, "In some places, deer herds have grown so large they are considered a nuisance" (17). The schoolmarm and marketeer collaborate, trying to delight and instruct, but fail on both accounts.

A more inspired offering comes in the form of Marion Dane Bauer's narrative poem, The Longest Night, which combines hints of modernist poetry with powerful illustrations to form a vision of dark, luminous night. Bauer sets the story in spare, chilly verse:

The snow lies deep.The night is long and long.The stars are ice, the moon is frost,and all the world is still.

She adds a touch of the sinister, "A moon shadow lies by every tree, / thin as a hungry wolf," and each spread is matched with Ted Lewin's paintings in blue, white, and black. In this story, the night wind finds the different animals claiming they can bring back the sun with their unique natural abilities, but in the end, the wind confirms that it is only the chickadee who can bring back the sun. She can do so not with horns and claws, but with her call, "Dee-dee-dee." The simple, almost...