Wong, Janet S. (2003). KNOCK ON WOOD: POEMS ABOUT SUPERSTITIONS. Ill. by Julie Paschkis. NY: Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0689855125.
Taking seventeen traditional beliefs like walking under ladders and throwing salt, author and poet Janet S. Wong ventures through the world of superstitions in a collection of original free verse and rhyming poems.
Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions introduces readers to the world of superstitions, and there remedies, through the creative and original poems of Janet Wong and the corresponding artwork of Julie Paschkis. The seventeen poems are presented by the major element of the superstitions: Cat, Clover, Ears, Garlic, Hair, Hat, Horseshoe, Key, Ladder, Ladybug, Mirror, Potatoes, Rooster, Salt, Thirteen, Umbrellas, and Wood. Many of them are commonly known, such as a black cat crossing your path; however, there are less known ones like not putting hats on tables or beds.
In the collection, there are poems that are written in free verse, such as Horseshoe:
Think of a horseshoe as a piggy bank of luck.
When you bring it home, hang I prongs up.
Then leave it to fill, full and rich,
with no one looking.
When it’s time, the luck will spill.
There are also poems that are in rhyme like Potatoes:
Potatoes for your pocket, Granny.
Let them wrinkle for you, Granny.
Let them dry as hard as stones,
to pull the hurting from your bones.
In any form, the poems also give off specific tones and moods feelings. Many are humorous like Garlic: “All you bloodsuckers,/this is your last change:/ I am one bite/ away -/ from a hunk/ of Mother’s famous garlic chunk chicken,” (Wong, p. 8). Then there are ones that are mysterious and haunting. For example, Umbrellas: “Nasty ghosts fear a storm, have you heard?/ This is why they hide under umbrellas” (Wong, p. 32).
Paschkis’ watercolor illustrations, which are a cross between an Asian-flare and Americana art, have two levels of use in the book. First, they compliment each of the poems, and secondly, they set the format of the entire book. In two colors, such as red and cream for the poem Ladybug, the organic or linear art frames the entire double-spread and are mirror images of each other. These frames illustrate the poems, such as vampires surrounded by cloves of garlic and vampires lying dead because of the garlic, and are wonderfully detailed and creative. An example of this artistic creativity is seen in for Wood where the trees that surround the poem have flowers, animals, and humans intertwined into their surfaces. The text is in the center of the second page and within a shaped that either matches the topic, a hat shape for the poem about hats, or simple geometric or organic shape. On the opposite page is the same center shape with a picture that also relates to the poem, such for the poem about knocking on wood, there is a girl who is walking through a forest and knocking on one of the trees.
The final elements of the Knock on Wood: Poems About Superstitions are, at the very end of the book, the “About the Superstitions,” which briefly explains why the seventeen elements are associated with superstition, for example the belief that ghosts live in umbrellas come from the Chinese culture, and the “Author’s Note” that tells the author’s story of how she became fascinated with the subject.
With her strong interest in the topic and despite the fact that most of her poems are free versed, Wong truly grasps and illustrates the seventeen superstitions in a way that young readers can easily understand and have fun learning about these traditional and cultural beliefs.
HORN BOOK MAGAZINE
(Primary, Intermediate) The author and the artist of Night Garden reunite for this picture book of poems about black cats, horseshoes, ladders, and other superstitions. The tone this time is mostly playful, as in this poem titled "Clover": "If you find a four-leaf clover in the grass, / you know a horse was born there / sometime. / In the days of fairies? / Fame, a faithful friend, wealth, good health. / These will be yours, doubled, they say-- / if you give your clover to me." Other subjects include ladybugs, the number thirteen, and opening umbrellas indoors, and Wong explains each superstition at the end, along with her motivation in these uncertain times for writing poems about superstitions. Where Wong's poetry here is a bit less thought provoking and nuanced than some of her previous work, Paschkis's paintings make the most of each poem. The book is beautifully designed, with one poem per spread, and a repeated, related shape (a hand, a house, a keyhole, etc.) containing a full-color painting on the left page and the poem on the right. The surrounding borders take elements from the poem and the painting and play with them symmetrically on the two pages, often with great intricacy and subtlety. Paschkis and Wong show how a poet and painter in harmony can each enhance the other's work in this engaging and visually striking book. Copyright 2003 of The Horn Book, Inc. All rights reserved (September 1, 2003).
SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL
Gr 3-5-Itchy ears, broken mirrors, and hats worn backward join wood spirits, ghosts, and of course black cats in this imaginative exploration of common and lesser-known superstitions. The shapely poems are infused with fey intimations in keeping with the collection's theme: "It is said/salt is magic. The pure kind, sea crystals./Spilled salt is magic flung wild." Some selections are haunting, and some humorous, as in this glimpse of a vampire's downfall: "All you bloodsuckers,/this is your last chance:/I am one bite/away-/from a hunk/of Mother's famous garlic chunk chicken." Paschkis creates an exquisite backdrop for the verses. Presented on a panoramic spread, each poem and facing watercolor scene have matching frames, anchoring them as reflections of one another. Some of the borders are abstract designs, but others are suggestive of elements in the verses. For example, "Potatoes" is contained inside a lumpy oval. Adept at both storytelling and design, the illustrator places the text and picture blocks against a wonderful montage of images in tones of a single color. Children of varied ethnicities and time periods are cast in fanciful folk-art scenes. Humor, satire, subplots, historic references, and decorative and surreal elements abound in artful profusion. There is much to ponder in both words and pictures. Some of the children depicted suggest a young audience, but the mixed poetic/visual brew is sophisticated. The author includes brief comments about the featured superstitions and a note reflecting on her personal experience in this area.-Margaret Bush, Simmons College, Boston Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information (December 1, 2003).
*Ask the children if they have heard of any of these superstitions.
*Read other books about superstitions like Keep the Butter Side Up: Food Superstitions From Around the World by Kathlyn Gray and Silly Superstitions by Graham Denton.