The intelligent, circumspect and forever-surprising Emily Dickinson is at the heart of Jane Yolen's picture book My Uncle Emily (Philomel, 32 pages, $17.99, ages 7 to 12).
Yolen, who has written hundreds of books for children, succeeds with this one in a fashion that the reclusive 19th-century poet might have liked: The story is simple but with unexpected dimensions, and is written so economically as to parallel Dickinson's poems.
The title refers to the special relationship between Dickinson and her real-life nephew, 6-year-old Gilbert. The two shared a love of bees, butterflies and more in nature. Young Gib tries to understand his aunt's short, potent poetry. In a rare gesture, she gives him a poem, The Bumble Bee's Religion, to take to school (which, in real life, Dickinson did). As he reads the poem to his class, Gib worries that the children and teacher won't understand it; and, sure enough, one boy spouts that Gib's aunt is "a peculiar old maid and a reckless . . ." The boy, Jonathan, never finishes the description because Gib punches him in the nose. The altercation ends with both boys wearing dunce caps and standing in the corner.
Later, Gib's brother explains that Jonathan probably meant recluse; later still,in front of the whole family, Gib delivers a cleansed version of the story. Uncle Emily spies the deceit and gives Gib another poem: Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant -- Success in Circuit Lies.
Yolen incorporates Dickinson's words smoothly into the story so that readers experience fine poetry as well as the family drama. Nancy Carpenter's colorful illustrations have the look of old-fashioned woodcuts but are still as lively as those she produced for her contemporary picture book, 1 7 Things I'm Not Allowed To Do Anymore.
My Uncle Emily might be just the right introduction for young readers to the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
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The life of a Roman slave, circa AD 107, was no picnic. Separated from their families, assigned to the hardest labor, often beaten and only occasionally able to dream of buying their freedom, slaves made up as much as one-third of the population. And many of them were children.
Young Iliona tells her story in Roman Diary (Candlewick, 64 pages, $18.99, age 8 and older), fourth in Richard Platt's historical fiction "Diary" series.
The picture book is generous with details of ancient Roman life, revealed in the narrative and in David Parkins' abundant and colorful illustrations. Neither spare the grim details.
Iliona is traveling with her parents and brother from their home in Greece to Egypt when their ship is attacked by pirates. Her parents are killed and she and her brother are sold into slavery; Iliona, who can speak and write in Latin, fetches a good price and becomes the property of a wealthy and fair master and his young wife. Her brother, not so lucky, becomes a laborer at a farm where slaves are treated cruelly.
The narrator's candid style and her story's consistent drama recall another tale for young readers, the medieval-set Catherine Called Birdy. Iliona tells of emptying chamber pots, visiting the opulent Roman baths, attending gladiator games, witnessing the collapse of an apartment building and serving food and drink at a bacchanalian feast.
In a most entertaining way, readers will discover what life was like -- as Platt describes it -- throughout "six glorious and bloodthirsty centuries" during which the Romans created magnificent art, architecture and writing.
Also in the series: Castle Diary, Egyptian Diary and Pirate Diary.
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Other new and noteworthy historical books soon to be published for young readers:
• Mission Control, This is Apollo (Viking, 128 pages, $23.99 age 10 and older) -- The 40th anniversary of the moon landing is celebrated and documented in a book rich with photographs and illustrations. Andrew Chaikin (A Man on the Moon) and Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean are the authors.
• Pharaoh's Boat (Houghton Mifflin, 32 pages, $18, ages 9 to 12) -- David Weitzman tells how the ancient Egyptians built an enormous boat for the Pharaoh and then, after an archaeological dig, how builders recreated it in the 20th century.
• The Time Book (Candlewick, 60 pages, $18.99, ages 9 to 12) -- Martin Jenkins waxes philosophically and factually about time: what it is, how we started keeping track of it and why we measure it in such unusual ways - to the accompaniment of Richard Holland's very cool collage illustrations.