There are many things to like about Jon J Muth’s newest picture book, Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons. From concept to execution, it’s a picture book that hits all the right notes.
What we have here is a collection of 26 original haiku about the four seasons. The number of haiku is significant in that each one includes one capitalized word, and if you look closely you’ll see that those initial capitalized letters take us through the alphabet, page by page. (Muth even handles the “x” page seamlessly. I admit that, when I read alphabet books, my thoughts first jump to “x” and how the author-illustrator is going to handle that misfit letter. More often than not, it’s a giant stretch.)
Our tour guide through the seasons is a young panda, named Koo. Koo is curious and observant (not to mention entirely endearing, what with his round body and abundant fluff), opening the book with a haiku in which he wonders if Autumn dreams of new clothes, while he watches red and orange leaves fly through the sky. Eventually, two friends (human children) show up on his door step, ready to play in the snow.
But let me back up to the book’s Author’s Note, which is concise, informative and a really smart way to open this book. If you look closely, in fact, you see a copyright page note that explains that the President of The Haiku Society of America reviewed and approved the note.
In it, Muth explains that haiku originated in Japan and was traditionally composed of 17 sound parts, called on. These on were separated into three lines: The first line included five on; the second, seven; and the third, five again.
English syllables and these sound parts that constitute on are different, Muth explains. When translated into English, haiku usually clocks out as under a total of 17 syllables, unless the translator goes with that five-seven-five pattern using English syllables. And, it seems, this structure still rules when children today learn haiku in the classroom.
“For me,” he writes, “haiku is like an instant captured in words—using sensory images. At its best, a haiku embodies a moment of emotion that reminds us that our own human nature is not separate from all of nature.”
And with this beautiful book he achieves this sensory exploration of nature—without adhering to that rigid, traditional five-seven-five structure, yet still observing the three-line form. The poems are evocative (“Icicles / reach down with dripping fingers”) and incisive. There is a haiku about warm cookies on a cold day; friends knocking at the door, inviting play; the “audience of sparrows” in spring; the fluttering snowfall and looming shadows of winter; the feel of a violet tickling one’s cheek in summer; and much more. There’s humor (the blank stare of too-much-TV in winter), lots of joy (the new leaves, new grass, and new sky of spring), and poignancy (Koo feels sadness after inadvertently killing a bug on a sidewalk in spring).
It’s all immediate and inviting and thoroughly accessible to young readers.
Muth’s watercolor and ink illustrations are eloquent and warm. Pastel yellows, greens and blues dominate (not to mention the sunny, summery pastel purples of the endpages), Koo standing out all the more with his red-and-white striped scarf of winter. Muth is never one to clutter a spread; his use of white space lets this artwork breathe, and it all works to great effect here, especially in the snowy spreads. He also knows when to let his story be quiet: In my favorite moments, the children read aloud on a warm spring day to a small gathering of sparrows, and in the final illustration, Koo sits quietly on a tree branch, “becoming so quiet / Zero sound / only breath.”
It’s an outstanding collection of haiku from a fine writer and exquisite illustrator.
HI, KOO! A YEAR OF SEASONS. Copyright © 2014 by Jon J Muth. Published by Scholastic Press, New York. Illustration reproduced by permission of the publisher.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.