The cover of this book says that it was written by “Renowned Poet Marilyn Singer” and illustrated by “Caldecott Medalist Ed Young.” Absolutely true on both counts. I was a big fan of Singer’s poems in her books Footprints on the Roof, Crossing the Pond, and Central Heating even before she won kudos for her astonishingly cool book, Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse. And Ed Young is an elder statesman when it comes to picture book illustration, having won the Caldecott for Lon Po Po and Caldecott honors for two more books, The Emperor and the Kite and Seven Blind Mice, among many other awards. So of course I was looking forward to seeing this collaboration.
The premise is equally intriguing. Singer has written a collection of poems about animals that live in what the introduction to the book calls “[e]xtreme environments such as deserts, glaciers, salt lakes, and pools of oil.” She begins with Humboldt penguins that live, not in Antarctica, but on the coasts of Chile and Peru. “Where they have to dig burrows/with bills and with legs,/so the scorching sun/won’t hard-boil/each precious clutch of eggs....” Then we’re off to visit the snow monkeys, “submerged in a hot spring, taking a bath.” Spadefoot toads, ice worms, blind cave fish, flamingos, tube worms, mountain goats, limpets, camels, mudskippers, dippers, petroleum flies (really!), and urban foxes complete the list. After which we find five pages of endnotes about the creatures and another page about poetry forms—very gratifying!
Singer doesn't just stick to one poetry form in this book; she includes free verse, rhymed poems, and several specific, formal poems: a triolet, a haiku, a sonnet, a cinquain, a villanelle, and a terza rima (as her endnote explains).
My favorite poem in the collection is about limpets:
On the Rocks
In the intertidal zones,
where waves are prone
to be forceful,
where the waters rush
to batter, buffet, crush,
dislodge, displace, fling,
a limpet is resourceful.
Its fine construction
In other words, its thing
is mightily to cling.
Ed Young has illustrated the poems with cut-and-torn-paper collage. I’m guessing he made some of the paper himself, and dyed and/or painted it, as well. The variable textures and edges work beautifully with the natural forms the artist depicts. The only spread I had a little trouble figuring out is the camel's—but then, the animal is in a sandstorm! And check out the wings on the petroleum flies. Or the crazy angle of the mountain goat. Not to mention the leg-driven spread accompanying the flamingo poem.
A Strange Place to Call Home is a double whammy, since it functions as both a poetry book and a look at a weird little corner of natural science. I’ll end with the subtitle, which I forgot to give you earlier: "The World’s Most Dangerous Habitats and the Animals that Call Them Home.” Can’t beat that!
Note: Thanks to Chronicle Books for sending me a review copy of this book.