Syrup is poured “on Jeff ’s couch / to make it a little sweeter”; goodbyes are bid at bathtime to “the jam ’twixt my toes”; and a “car runs on turkey baloney, / carrot and broccoli stew.” This is the impish world of Zilot & Other Important Rhymes. In this collection of over 70 poems, author Bob Odenkirk—best known for starring in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”—demonstrates a true gift for capturing the delightful idiosyncrasies of children. After all, Zilot originated almost 20 years ago as Old Time Rhymes, a handwritten compilation of poetry Odenkirk and his wife, Naomi Odenkirk, wrote with their young children, Erin Odenkirk (who grew up to illustrate Zilot) and Nate Odenkirk.
During the pandemic, Bob Odenkirk and Erin Odenkirk revisited poems they wrote together years earlier: “It was really sweet to go back and find that sort of childhood rawness—to have things that you totally forgot about be triggered in memory.”
Indeed, the whimsy in Zilot feels authentic, in no small part due to Erin’s jovial yet gentle illustrations. Erin uses soft coloring within sketched black outlines to breathe life into characters such as Willy Whimble, who is made memorable by the sheepish expression drawn on his face as he holds up a roasted pea half the size of his body. Erin’s two-page spreads will bring particular delight to readers with their crowded detail and diverse colors: The poem “That Time of Year” is completely transformed by a vibrant, eclectic illustration of the allergy-inducing plants it describes.
A sense of freedom runs throughout these poems, and Bob allows children an expansive exploration of vocabulary through phrases such as “fritter tenaciously” and “fulsome logs” (a description of dog poop). Zilot’s rambunctious energy will electrify readers and inspire them to create their own artworks and lexicons, just as Nate invented the eponymous word zilot—meaning “indoor fort”—as a child. As the back matter states, “You could just call it an ‘indoor fort’ . . . But zilot is better and faster, and it made us all smile.” This joy in playing with language practically leaps off each page in rhymes that may appear stilted until read out loud, which allows their charming rhythms to shine. Such is the case with poems like “Oh Shoelace, My Shoelace!”: “Perhaps I took it too far / when I insisted she kiss it. / Now she’s thrown it away. / All my life I will miss it.”
Mischief dominates these pages, but occasional tenderness and maturity surface in poems such as “A Cat Named Larry,” which touches upon death and grief. Zilot strikes the perfect balance as a gift that will inspire repeated bedtime reading.