cover image Emily


Michael Bedard, Barbara Cooney. Doubleday Books for Young Readers, $16.99 (40pp) ISBN 978-0-385-30697-3

This fictionalized encounter between Emily Dickinson and a young neighbor is, like a Dickinson sonnet, a quiet gem: unassuming upon first glance, it is in fact deeply lustrous, with new facets becoming apparent the longer one looks. The narrator and protagonist is a child who has just moved into the house across the street from ``the Myth.'' She accompanies her mother to Emily's house one day, where she makes her a gift of lily bulbs and receives a poem in return. Bedard's unnamed narrator speaks with the piercing clarity and insight particular to sensitive children. As she contemplates her fear of meeting the reclusive poet, she realizes that ``perhaps the lady in the yellow house is also afraid''; she intuitively responds to the hidden life mysteriously contained in the dull, dead bulbs; and she makes a simple but profound connection--``Maybe people are a mystery, too''--that allows her to reach out to her strange, largely hidden neighbor. While, laudably, the story in no way depends upon familiarity with Dickinson's life or work, the fullness of Bedard's accomplishment is most clearly evident in relation to the latter. He uses diction and imagery that might have been the poet's own: strong, sure language whose force derives from its very economy; small but potent details from nature and domesticity. Judiciously employing alliteration, rhyme, assonance and echoes--``Like flakes of flowers the words fell to the sheets. I listened to them fall and fell asleep''--his prose moves with the rhythms and lyricism of poetry, yet retains a child's straightforward, unselfconscious voice throughout. Caldecott Medalist Cooney's oils richly capture the story's subtly shifting moods, from the utter stillness of a street bathed in moonlight and swaddled in snow to the vigor of a sun-flooded room full of growing plants. They visually extend the text's Dickinsonian personification of nature (``There was no one there but winter, all in white'') and contain skillful echoes of their own: at different points in the story the child and poet are shown sitting alone on the landings of their respective houses, a visual reinforcing of their special kinship. And in their tranquil beauty these paintings testify to the mysteries and wonders of even the everyday. Ages 5-8. (Nov.)