Although January is the month when we make resolutions and look forward to improvement and better times, it is named for Janus, the two-headed Roman god of beginnings and endings, who looked in both directions.
A collection of previously unpublished Shel Silverstein poems, Every Thing On It (Harper, $19.99, ages 8 and up), has a looking-backward quality, considering that Silverstein died more than ten years ago. Still, these previously uncollected poems are written in Silverstein’s recognizable exuberant, playful style. They have bright, cheerful things to say about the most outlandish people and events, with word-play that goes perfectly with Silverstein’s sure-handed, clear and precise drawings.
With the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounting a major Van Gogh show in February, Van Gogh and the Post-Impressionists for Kids by Carol Sabbeth (Chicago Review Press, $17.95, ages 9 and up) is a timely in-depth look at this famous but still barely understood artist. The author does not gloss over Van Gogh’s tragically short, unstable life, but fills in lots of details, including his brief experience as a teacher to the other artists with whom he interacted, like Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.
The book is laudably frank about Van Gogh’s troubles and even has medical diagnoses that might be rendered today. It includes a variety of activities, from making the kind of bean soup Van Gogh ate to creating a mirror portrait like his own “Self-Portrait with Cut-Off Ear and Bandage.”
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans (HarperCollins, $19.99, ages 9 and up) looks back clear-eyed on African Americans’ bittersweet history in the U.S. A Caldecott-Award-winning illustrator, author Kadir Nelson is more likely to be inspiring than cheerful. Nelson brings his intense visual skills to historic figures as well as unknowns in U.S. history, and the text provides the same focus on individuals caught in the sweep of history.
The dignity in the face of oppression and ultimate triumph convey two senses of reflection —thinking about the past and seeing ourselves in a mirror. This double view is a tribute to African-Americans but also is appropriate to bidirectional Janus and his namesake month of January.
Frank Lipsius is a contributing writer to MetroKids.