Celebrate National Poetry Month with two picture books that serve as engaging, accessible introductions to the world of verse while paying tribute to the Japanese poetic form of haiku.
In Fran Nuño’s The Dance of the Bees, translated from the Spanish by Jon Brokenbrow and featuring exquisite illustrations from Zuzanna Celej, a woman recalls walking in the woods as a girl with her grandmother. As they walked, her grandmother taught her about bees—how they pollinate flowers, provide honey and are “important for life on our planet.”
Nuño sets the story in the Japanese countryside, and the book has a classical, almost formal design. Each spread contains an illustration on one side and text on the other, both framed within gently hexagonal borders. On nearly every spread is a haiku, printed vertically next to a small symbol of nature. For instance, an early spread includes this evocative haiku: “Along the way / the buzzing of bees / and our footsteps.” Underneath is a small bee within a crimson-colored border.
In this lovingly designed book (which is printed on environmentally friendly paper with an appealing heft), Celej’s muted, earth-toned cut-paper illustrations are spare, textured and feature the elegant lines of traditional Japanese art. In one image, she offers a close-up view of a bee in flight. Papery gossamer wings carry the insect, described in the accompanying haiku as a “tiny mystery,” beneath a branch with delicate cherry blossoms.
Midway through the story, the girl, now a grown woman, visits the same wooded spot with her son. The pair follows a bee, which lands on a pile of stones. Underneath the stones, they find a notebook of 12 haiku written by the grandmother: “I kept them in a secret place where I was sure you would find them one day, thanks to the dance of the bees,” the notebook reads. Now the woman can share her grandmother’s poetry with the next generation.
Mark Karlins’ Kiyoshi’s Walk, illustrated by Nicole Wong, is also an intergenerational tale. Effortlessly knitting together themes of creativity and family, it’s an exploration of the source of poetic inspiration, as seen through the eyes of Kiyoshi, a young boy spending the day with his grandfather Eto.
When he sees Eto write a haiku with a brush and ink in traditional Japanese calligraphy, Kiyoshi is intrigued. “Where do poems come from?” he asks. Wisely, Kiyoshi’s grandfather decides to show (not tell) the boy and invites him for a walk. As they stroll through the city, Eto occasionally stops to compose a haiku.
Kiyoshi is observant as he seeks out what inspires his grandfather. If a heap of oranges outside of a market—and the cat who topples those oranges—inspires a haiku, then Kiyoshi figures poems must come from seeing things. But then Eto writes a haiku after hearing pigeons and their “whir of feathers,” so the boy amends his statement: “Oh, you find poems by listening.” The gears in Kiyoshi’s head spin as he spends the day with his grandfather, eager to solve the mystery. Eventually the boy discovers that everything can contain poems—“the faces of the people, the sound of the river, the moon breaking from the clouds.”
Karlins grounds Kiyoshi’s Walk in the tangible details that grandfather and grandson experience, ordinary moments that become extraordinary when seen through the eyes of a poet. The way the sun shines from behind a cloud, the flowers that grow out of sidewalk cracks, an abandoned house with a child’s toy left behind, a fleeting feeling of loneliness—observant eyes and open hearts know that any of these things can inspire a poem. Wong brings it all to vivid life with warmly colored, terrifically detailed illustrations of the pair’s walk through the city.