Award-winning author and poet Joyce Sidman uses the word “gamble” to describe the publication of her new collection of poetry, What the Heart Knows, scheduled to be released in early October. It’s a collection of 21st-century “chants, charms, and blessings” (also the book’s sub-title), and in it, Sidman rejects the dark, while speaking directly to it (“I have stories of my own / to tell myself all night”); sings a song of bravery (“This one’s not a sure thing”); asks the God of Time to slow things down (“stretch like a sleepy dog”); blesses the downtrodden (“Should the crowd turn against you, / I will turn against the crowd”); and much more. All the while, she’s inviting young readers, though this is a book for word-lovers of all ages, to consider the messages we send to the world and how we use language to influence what is around us.
“Every book is a gamble, of course,” Sidman tells me. “But this book heads in a different direction than most of my work—in style, in structure, in age range. It is purely about human life as we live it—no owls or toads or porcupettes. Plus, there is a certain amount of magical thinking here: trying to change the course of events through words. It’s a kind of secular prayer book, if you will. In this polarized age, one never knows how a book with spells and charms in it might be received. People close to me predict controversy (!)—which I can’t quite believe, but you never know.”
No controversy yet. Only starred reviews, including Kirkus’: “The volume's title,” the review states, “bespeaks the tricky blend of rationality and emotion inherent in often baffling situations like aging, loss, and loneliness, and Sidman employs deftly sophisticated verse to engage them head on.”
How does a modern-day poet turn off the loud, consumer-crazed noise of the world to craft poems that take on such contemplative matters? “I lead a quiet life,” Joyce explains. “Unless I am teaching or traveling, my days involve a morning of writing and an afternoon of walking, errands and author business (emails, website maintenance, etc.).” With her sons out of the house, Joyce says it’s just her, her husband and her dog. She teaches—and only locally—for a few weeks of the year. She travels for work, but only when necessary, adding that she has a love-hate relationship with national conferences.
She also makes a point of limiting her screen time and being mindful of the fast pace of cyber-spots, such as Facebook and Twitter. “I think [they] exert a subtle though significant pressure to reinvent oneself as a super-upbeat performance artist. My editor Ann Rider once said something very valuable to me: that some writers, once they are published, get so caught up in being ‘Authors’—talking, writing and presenting about their work—that they have no creative energy left to actually write. It’s a real balancing act, because we are also expected to promote ourselves. But I try to keep the focus on the work itself.”
Sidman is quick to note, however, that writing possesses an inherent mystery. “I really have no idea how the voices in my books come to me. I’m not sure any writer does. Walter Dean Myers once said that when he has to explain how he came up with the idea of a certain book, he mostly makes stuff up, because the whole thing is a mystery to him. It’s a mystery to me, too! And everyone does it differently.”
What the Heart Knows marks the third time that Sidman has been paired with illustrator Pamela Zagarenski, who has been awarded a Caldecott Honor twice, including for Sidman’s 2008 picture book, Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Colors. Zagarenski is known for her highly patterned and finely detailed mixed-media paintings. “At the risk of sounding bizarro,” Joyce says, “I think Pamela and I have some kind of psychic bond. Our imagination travels in such similar paths. In many ways, this is the book we’ve been waiting to do together for a long time. After Red Sings from Treetops, she kept sending me these beautiful, inspirational poems by Rumi and Hafiz that she’d illustrated for her card line. I had already begun writing what I called ‘the Chants book,’ and these messages from her dropped right into that section of my creative mind and grew there.”
To be sure, Zagarenski’s lush signature style is on display in this new collaboration. But in some spreads, especially for the more serene poems, she scales back, employing copious white space, less detail and a graceful economy. “Pamela was so charged up,” explains Joyce, “that I think she would have fully illustrated every single page! But book designer Sheila Smallwood and the rest of the creative team at Houghton worked to keep a bit more white space around some of the poems, in order to gear the book toward an older audience.”
Sidman explains her chemistry with the artist this way: That it’s as if Zagarenski takes what she’s written and adds a whole new fully-realized dimension to it, “as if she’d been waiting for those exact words to illustrate.” Sidman calls it “amazing.”
Those of us reading could call it magic. Maybe even a blessing.
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.