A turn for the verse
Alfred, Lord Tennyson once famously wrote, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Well, this spring, he’ll have plenty of new poetry to inspire his quest, and just in time for National Poetry Month. There are poems for the young ladies, too, of course. As a matter of fact, there are haiku, elegies, limericks, sonnets and odes for young readers of all ages. The variety is wonderful, with new collections from favorites like Jack Prelutsky and Paul B. Janeczko, plus ear-catching innovations from fresh voices on the children’s poetry scene. Dinosaurs get rhythm, planets get pondered, and silliness gets celebrated. If parents and teachers start introducing a little rhyme-time now, they’re likely to have cultivated a few new versifiers by summer vacation.
City I Love is the latest poetic tribute from children’s writer Lee Bennett Hopkins, and it’s as entertaining as any storybook adventure. The poems travel through urban centers, from Manhattan to Venice, Tokyo to San Francisco. The cities are not explicitly named, but brilliant illustrations by New Yorker artist Marcellus Hall make each abundantly clear. He’s also added a tour guide, in the form of a world-traveling, backpack-wearing dog, who appears in each picture—kids will love spotting him—making the book accessible to young preschoolers. The verses themselves are sharp and succinct, describing Paris from a perched pigeon’s perspective and Mexico City from the interior of a crowded subway car. Hopkins and Hall have collaborated on a gorgeous homage to the lyrical life of cities, perhaps best described by the first poem: “Sing a song of cities./ If you do. /Cities will sing back to you.”
In 2006, Jack Prelutsky was named as our nation’s first Children’s Poet Laureate and the title is well deserved. He’s written more than 40 books of kid-pleasing poetry, including The New Kid on the Block and My Dog May Be a Genius. His newest, The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems From Beyond the Solar System is a blast. Here, Prelutsky stands science fiction on its head with his richly worded verse. It’s comical, of course, and you needn’t look further than the poems’ titles to see the wit. Take “The Savage Monarch of Zazorzz,” for example, or “The Monopods of Ogdofod.” Jimmy Pickering adds superb genre-bending illustrations to these fantastic cautionary tales that came from outer space.
Karma Wilson knows her way around a rhyme scheme. She’s best recognized for the catchy rhythms of Bear Snores On and its lovable sequels. In What’s the Weather Inside? Wilson engages readers from the get-go with funny and sometimes naughty poems such as “What Your Dog Might Be Thinking” (“I love to munch what the garbage man missed. / I love to give my people kisses. / SLURP!”) and “Mom’s Diet” (“Whenever we go out to eat, she gets the diet size. / But at this rate she won’t lose weight. / My mom steals half my fries!”). Coupled with the simple comic drawings of Barry Blitt, What’s the Weather Inside? reveals the multidimensional talents of Wilson, a clearly seasoned writer.
For today’s fans of children’s poetry, few names are more familiar than Paul B. Janeczko. He’s edited more than 20 award-winning anthologies that have bred a new generation of read-aloud fanatics. His latest, A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing, and Shout, marks his third pairing with Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Chris Raschka. The latest collection combines classics like “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” by Edward Lear with newer delights such as “Good Hot Dogs” by Sandra Cisneros. Raschka’s paintings are as expressive as ever, and the grouping, like its predecessors, will likely inspire teachers and librarians to stage a few “Poetry Open Mic Nights” for the under-12 crowd.
Stampede! Poems to Celebrate the Wild Side of School is heading your way. This is poetic energy at its best by the prolific and always topical Laura Purdie Salas. Stampede! includes 18 untamed poems from the classroom and schoolyard that will appeal to the wild child in everyone. The joys of jumping in puddles and swinging on jungle gym bars are set to rhythmic verse, and Steven Salerno’s mod illustrations provide a perfectly lively complement to poems such as “Swarm”: “I brought a kickball—want to play? / I wonder what’s for lunch today. / When the doors swing open wide, / we bumblebees all fly inside.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a kid who isn’t instantly mega-charmed by Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings, the triumphant new book by Douglas Florian, author of mammalabilia and insectlopedia. Combine facts about dinosaurs with beguiling rhythmic verse and you have an instant classic. In this case, Florian’s smart art shares the spotlight with his dino-rhymes. If T. rexes are fan favorites so, too, will be their ode, which ends this way: “Its jaws were horrific. / Its profile distinct. / I find it terrific / That it’s T-rex-tinct.”
With a title like The Underwear Salesman: And Other Jobs for Better or Verse you’re bound to attract more than a few curious literary onlookers and, perhaps, one or two young job seekers. This series of poems by J. Patrick Lewis (of Please Bury Me in the Library fame) focuses on career possibilities running the gamut from ice sculptor, belly dancer and banana picker to elevator operator, garbage collector, and highway line painter. And in a stroke of well-placed wisdom, “Poet” lyrically describes the bard’s life: “I take a word, and then another, / Let them get to know each other.” Each poem is a joy and Serge Bloch’s snazzy illustrations add to the mirth of poems such as “Plumber”: “Here’s a job to call your own when you’re in the twoilet zone.”
Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems is a thoroughly entertaining and distinctive collection—it’s bound to resemble a vertical notepad—based on one of the most accessible of poetic forms. The book’s editor, Georgia Heard, notes her inspiration in the introduction: “Out for a walk in New York City I see: yellow cabs speeding down Broadway; people lounging in overstuffed chairs at a coffee shop; cars honking; a dog barking in the distance. As I walk along I make a list in my head of what I observe just like Walt Whitman did over one hundred years ago.” Surely, this overture will light a few bulbs in the minds of young writers who will realize that they don’t necessarily need to look further than their “To Do” list to create verse. Among the list-makers are superstar authors like Eileen Spinelli and Jane Yolen, but a standout is Avis Harvey’s “Booktime,” a poem that catalogs all of the places one can go to enjoy a good book.
Ellen Trachtenberg is the author of The Best Children’s Literature: A Parent’s Guide.