Posted by: jeannineatkins | April 16, 2010

What I’m Reading: Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors by Joyce Sidman

For her final project, one of my students is writing a picture book about evolution as told by a fnch. I’m charmed by the idea, but after looking at an early draft, counseled her that Professor Arvin Finch may need to use more words with fewer syllables. Can we learn about the complicated family tree with a less complicated vocabulary?

Of course the title of one of this year’s most acclaimed book of poetry and prose, Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors, isn’t short or simple. Which is today’s reminder that rules are made to be broken. Or that I’m wrong. Ubiquitous is defined in this wonderful book’s glossary as “Something that is (or seems to be) everywhere at the same time,” which right from the beginning makes you wonder. Illustrator Beckie Prange created a wildly winding time “line” on the endpapers with different colors representing different geologic periods. Bacteria stars on the left hand page as the solitary life form. Further on the right page we at last get to lichens and mollusks. Creeping around earth, in the bottom corner, are dandelions, then coyotes, and finally humans.

The tributes to earth’s life forms follows this order, with poems and information set across two pages. The poems take a variety of forms: some written second person addressing the subject, some first person as if from the subject, and some taking the subject’s physical shape: the breathless rambling squirrel poem is told within its body, moving from head to tail, while “Scarab” fits neatly into the beetle’s elegant shape. The book opens with “First Life,” a diamante, small and formal, yet posed within a burst of colors and shapes. “The Mollusk That Made You” is a gorgeous ode, with the speaker wondering, “who swirled your whorls and ridges?
Was it the shy gray wizard
shuttered inside you?”
Next to this poem we learn about how long mollusks have existed and the dangers posed to them. Many of the prose sections echo what we read in the poem, but with more restrained language, and also suggest why the subjects, some of which are too small to see, are important to humans. Often there’s a single sentence about how research about them may change the future.

As with their earlier book, Song of the Water Boatman (also from Houghton Mifflin), Joyce Sidman’s words and Beckie Prange’s pictures work seamlessly together, though the pictures here seem slightly wilder and wider to encompass not just life on and in a pond, but the history of the earth. The images, like the words in the book, always have something about them that’s familiar, but also push us to see life and its connections in a whole new and wonderful way.

For an interview with Joyce Sidman, along with a poem and pictures, please see:

Poetry Friday roundup is at Where I’m happy to say that Jules blogs about Borrowed Names and shows a favorite poem from the book.



  1. My Cat and I loved this book. She actually made me sit and watch her finger her way along that entire swirly, whorly timeline on the endpages. This was not easy!

  2. My guess is that Beckie Prange doesn’t have a cat, or at least closes her studio door, since my impression from the illustrator’s note was that she used a very long string to create this. What a thing to pounce on!

  3. Oh, but I suppose your Cat is human. (I was trying to picture a cat doing this, and did manage, with lots of eyebrow lifting.)

  4. Ha! Yes, Cat is my daughter, Catherine. I think I meant to type “my daughter” but “my Cat” came out instead. Slip of the fingertips.

  5. Oh, thanks for telling us more about this book, which I’ve been very curious about. Sounds gorgeous and intriguing. Now I’m really curious about those endpages too!

  6. I both enjoyed and learned a lot from this book. And those end pages were really inspired: Beckie Prange speaks in the afterward about what she tried to fulfill in two pages, and I think she succeeds.
    (I did like to think that Loree’s Cat was both four legged and as brilliant as the rest of the family, trying to find her place with a precise placement of the paw within evolutionary history, but oh well.)

  7. Jeannine, with all this buzz about your book, I am so looking forward to reading it!
    Thanks for sharing about Joyce. I love her work, too!
    Laura Evans
    all things poetry

  8. I’m glad you like Joyce’s work, too, Laura, and I hope Borrowed Names finds its way a library near you! Thanks for your kind comments.

  9. How have I missed this book? I LOVE Joyce Sidman. And your student’s pb subject IS charming…

  10. I can’t wait to see this book. I think it will sit nicely on the shelf beside THE TREE THAT TIME BUILT.

  11. The book was only published a few weeks ago. I think you’ll love it.

  12. Really Ubiquitous and The Tree that Time Built are both largely about evolution, seen through various voices and prisms, so yes, lots to ponder together.

  13. Elaine Magliaro
    I love UBIQUITOUS! Then again–I love every poetry book that Joyce Sidman has written.
    Have you seen the trailer for the book?
    BTW, I don’t know if you saw the comment I left at Jama’s blog about your poem “Not Today” from BORROWED NAMES. I thought your poem was REALLY lovely.

  14. Yes, Joyce Sidman writes with grace and intelligence about interesting things. What’s not to love?
    And Elaine, I’m so pleased you liked “Not Today.” Thank you for letting me know.

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