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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Miss Emily, written by Burleigh Muten and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $18.00 ages 8 and up

"...Mattie and Sally claimed their places at her side;
Ned and I flourished our hats
and bowed at the blanket's edge.
Please sit down," Miss Emily urged.
"I have news and a plan," she said,
tilting her head toward the house,
nodding her slowest of nods,
so we knew without words
that it was a Secret Plan."
In a gentle and charming bow to the reclusive Emily Dickinson, Burleigh Muten shows a side of the poet that many would not necessarily know or appreciate: her love of children. The poems spoken through Mac's first person narrative describe a series of escapades with Miss Emily, his neighbor, and with other neighborhood children.

As Prosperina, Queen of the Night, Emily invites them all to join her at midnight to welcome the arrival of the circus train. The children will have a part to play as well:

"Ah, yes, this year, I propose you gypsies join me!
After the second whistle and the hiss of the steam,
we five wily ones will watch
horses and monkeys,
and if Fortune smiles -
an elephant shall strut from the cars!
We'll see the gypsies of our clan,
the ones who travel farther and farther
than we Amherst gypsies can."

No one else must know.

This story is based on real events; the author has included real correspondence from Miss Emily to the children. Readers will be caught up in this lively, imaginary, and literary world as they are guided with joy to escapades that will keep them focused on the quiet action and the stories shared. When an accident results in admitting what they have been doing, Miss Emily takes responsibility for the plan that led the children to break rules. There are some repercussions. Miss Emily wants them to take away from their experience one important thing:

Please never grow up, which is 'much better -'
Please never improve - you are perfect now.

(You should know that she referred to the group of children, boys and girls, as 'boys' in her letters and notes to them.)
 Matt Phelan has created artwork that is as gentle and reassuring as the book itself. They perfectly match the tone of the poetry created to tell this lovely story. His use of ink and charcoal gives it a soft and muted look, thus enhancing Ms. Muten's story without ever overwhelming it. Most of the illustrations are full pages, captioned to give it a classic feel.

In back matter, the author includes historical notes about the characters she has included in the telling, an extensive bibliography for further study, and acknowledgements.

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