Words Worth Chanting

If you’re looking for a beautiful, soulful, abiding children’s book, consider What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms & Blessings by the extraordinary poet Joyce Sidman. What the Heart Knows by Joyce Sidman

Winner of multiple awards, including this year’s NCTE Award for Excellence in Children’s Poetry, Joyce Sidman is one of my favorite poets writing for children. People of all ages, however, can find much to treasure in her work, especially her latest title.

In her introduction, Sidman notes these poems are about “repairing friendship, slowing down time, understanding happiness, facing the worst kind of loss. They are words to speak in the face of loneliness, fear, delight, or confusion.” She explores such universal hopes and worries with fresh imagery and the kind of repetition, alliteration, and emotional heft you expect to find in prayers or sacred poetry. In these decidedly secular poems, however, she honors the feelings we so often ignore.

Dividing the book into four parts: Chants & Charms, Spells & Invocations, Laments & Remembrances, and Praise Songs & Blessings, the poet explores a range of experiences. The first poem, the triolet “Chant to Repair a Friendship,” will speak to many readers:

“Come, friend, forgive the past;
I was wrong and I am grieving.
Tell me that this break won’t last–
take my hand; forgive the past.
Anger’s brief, but love is vast.”

She ends by repeating the poem’s first two lines. Who hasn’t experienced a relationship that needed such healing words?

In other brief, pleasing poems, Sidman explores time’s slippery nature, as when she laments the loss of a teddy bear, “I thought I didn’t need,” or highlights such ephemeral delights as building sandcastles or watching a curled-up cat. One of the pleasures of these poems is how she uses such common subjects to ponder deeper truths. “Blessing on the Curl of Cat,” for instance, turns out to be about the writer finding her place in a shifting world. And “Come. Happiness” describes the emotion not as “some flashy friend” but as one that is “more like a raindrop,/governed by mysterious principles.” She concludes that poem with this surprising request: “Bathe us with your cool spray./Fill us with your splendid breath./Help us do your work.”

Heightening the beauty of What the Heart Knows is the fantastical artwork by Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Pamela Zagarenski. Her bright, whimsical images, rooted in fairy tales, grace each poem and inspire readers to think more deeply about these lovely poems.

Middle-schoolers and older readers will be fortunate if this book happens to fall down the chimney. Who knows where that might lead? They might discover poetry has the power to help us make sense of a bewildering world.

For excellent tips on using this remarkable little book in the classroom or library, see Sidman’s guide.

Looking for more ideas for great gift books? See my posts A Time for Peace and Christmas in the Country.

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