Normally I eschew books with religious themes, but I could not resist the combination of author Nikki Grimes and illustrator Bryan Collier.
This clever and surprising book begins with a modernized translation of Psalm 121, one of the most beautiful of the psalms, which begins, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?”
Each two-page spread of the book then features a free-verse poem ending in a word of the psalm in bold text, and telling the story of Jordan and Tanya, the latter being the class bully. For example, the book begins with narration by Jordan:
“Some days, even the ant towers over me, and I
Cower in a forest of grass, waiting for the fear to lift
Like fog, so I can be brave, rise up.
But the class bully growls my name, and I shiver in my
sneakers, feel the wet fill my eyes.
Then I remember how Mom told me to
Roll my fear like a ball, toss it high in the
Air where you can catch it, and fling it to the hills.”
When a new boy named Israel comes to the school, Tanya decides she will befriend Israel, because, as she says, “the kid needs a protector, name like Israel.”
Jordan tries hard to understand why Tanya is so mean:
“People are puzzles, even Tanya – not all good, nor
all bad, but mixed. I try not to care, but the
Lord pokes me with his Word, mentions the moon
Tanya and I both sleep under, dream by.
God loves us the same, tucks us both in at night.”
The story has a fantastic ending.
As the author explains in a note at the conclusion of the book, The Watcher is written in a form of poetry called “the golden shovel.” She writes:
“In this form, you take lines from an existing poem or, as in this book, from a psalm, and create a new poem using the words from the original.”
She explains the process a bit more in detail, then encourages readers to try it themselves.
Bryan Collier is a four-time Caldecott Honor winner for his watercolor and collage artwork, and his illustrations are excellent, as usual.
Evaluation: Imagine how surprised I was at myself to love a book based on a religious theme. But I don’t think any particular belief is at all necessary to enjoy this beautiful story. It is an excellent guide on how to cope with bullying, on understanding others who are different or mean, and on the redeeming value of friendship.
Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017