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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Papa Is a Poet, written by Natalie S. Bober and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon. Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt and Company, Macmillan. Raincoast, 2013. $19.99 ages 8 and up

 "Evening time meant a short walk after supper with Papa to watch the sun go down, hear the birds sing softly, and smell the soft mist rising from the meadow. After our walk, we settled in the parlor."

It was in that parlor, night after night, that Robert Frost's children learned how much their parents loved to read:

"They read from books that they loved, passing the book back and forth between them. We were allowed to stay and listen until we became sleepy. Then Mama let us cuddle up and go to sleep in whichever bed we chose."

The beauty to be found in the picture book biographies that we share with children often comes from learning about a new person's life, or even about the background for someone whose work is familiar to us. I love Robert Frost's poetry and knew nothing about him as a father and husband.

Using the voice of his daughter to tell his story immediately makes it more personal, and more appealing to the audience. The author focuses on Frost's love of nature and family. Upon returning to the United States following two years in England, her father is told that one of his books has been published. His work had been published in England, but her father knows nothing of the American
release. Off he goes to learn more.

As the family awaits his return Lesley thinks back on the life lived prior to moving to England. Their farm in the New Hampshire countryside is remembered with fondness for the happy times they experienced:

"Papa had cleared the underbrush with an axe and clippers, and Mama would sit on a board bench that Papa had nailed between two young pine trees. She would mend stockings or read aloud to us. We would build dams, play house using plantain leaves as our dishes, or hunt for mayflowers."

The children were taught by their parents as they lived far from town. Their lessons were varied and literacy was at the heart of what they did together: writing personal stories, buying books they loved, rereading for pleasure, and loving words as their parents did. It was an unconventional upbringing.

As she recalls farm life, Lesley acknowledges that 'the cupboard was often bare, yet life was filled to the brim'. She describes those daily events that spawned the poems included in Robert Frost's much loved and admired books.

"When Papa listened carefully to the speech of all his farmer neighbors, he heard words that had the ring of pure poetry. "The sentence sound often says more than the words," he told me. He wanted to make music out of words. Papa could hear the melody in a sentence.

       He gives his harness bells a shake
       To ask if there is some mistake."

Illustrations done in acrylic ink, colored pencil and watercolor offer a clear and gentle look at the life the family lived. They enhance the text and inform readers of times past. The back matter is most interesting and includes an author's note, archival black and white photographs, Robert Frost quotations, and selections from the poet's work.

The final image shows a librarian (or teacher) reading poems by this beloved writer and is accompanied by this final sentence:

 "The "road" Papa took was the road - or life - of a poet. Now the world can hear the beauty of my papa's words."

And we do!

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