Sweet words for little readers
Here are some of our favorite new poetry books for children, selections that are bound to unleash the inner poet in even the youngest writers.
A PLAY ON WORDS
Readers of all ages will get a kick out of Bob Raczka’s clever Lemonade: And Other Poems Squeezed from a Single Word. The premise of these short, fun verses is to take a single word (such as lemonade, pepperoni or playground), and make a short poem using only the letters in that word. So, for example, a poem called “Television” consists of the lines: “set is on / i sit.”
This book will appeal to both poetry and puzzle lovers, no doubt motivating them to choose their own words and write some poems.
LEARNING WITH VERSE
Over the last few years I have particularly liked books that combine poetry with nonfiction, such as Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s Cousins of Clouds: Elephant Poems. This book is a visual and literary feast, with eye-catching mixed-media illustrations by Megan Halsey and Sean Addy.
Each page contains this duo’s illustrations, along with one of Zimmer’s imaginative poems and a short sidebar filled with interesting elephant facts, such as the recent discovery that elephants can communicate over extremely long distances with low tones that people can’t hear, and that they can feel these tones through their feet.
Many interesting topics are addressed, including elephants’ ivory tusks, their excellent memory and the term “white elephant.” The book’s title comes from the first page, in which we learn that some cultures once believed that elephants could control the weather. This blend of poetry, nonfiction and art is literature and learning at its best.
Similarly, Amy Gibson’s Around the World on Eighty Legs contains a menagerie of animal poems, organized by continent. The book begins with a world map showing how the poems and animals are grouped, and ends with an alphabetical glossary that sums up each animal with a few defining features. Daniel Salmieri’s watercolor, gouache and colored-pencil illustrations are lighthearted and fun, filled with animals that bear many amusing facial expressions.
There’s a nice blend of familiar and exotic animals, too, from the kangaroo to the cassowary, covered nicely with Gibson’s fun, never-pedantic poems. Here, for example, are a few lines about yaks:
The yakkity yakkity yak—
Why is it the yak never answers you back?
To a yak, nothing’s worse
than to have to converse—
The yakkity yakkity yak.
Animal lovers will also enjoy Lee Wardlaw’s Won Ton: A Cat Tale Told in Haiku. The book opens with a short note explaining that these verses are a form of Japanese poetry called senryu, very similar to haiku.
Wardlaw’s book is wonderfully innovative, telling a story through a series of senryu that are compelling yet quite accessible to young readers. The tale is told from the cat’s point of view, who starts out in a shelter and gets picked to go home with a family in a poem called “The Choosing.” Next, in “The Naming,” the cat hears his new moniker and proclaims:
Won Ton? How can I
be soup? Some day, I’ll tell you
my real name. Maybe.
This is a touching tale, made even more dramatic by Eugene Yelchin’s sublime illustrations, which vary on every page, adding drama, emotion, fun and beauty.
I have long been a fan of Kristine O’Connell George’s poetry collections, and her latest, Emma Dilemma: Big Sister Poems, is a real winner. Fourth-grader Jessica both loves and loathes her little sister Emma, and this is the essence of her “Emma Dilemma.”
Jessica voices her wide-ranging emotions through a series of poems that are spot-on for real situations and feelings, getting right at the heart of what it means to be a sister, chronicling both its delights and demons. Nancy Carpenter’s lively illustrations manage to capture every bit of the fun and fury.
There is drama here, too, when Emma tries to join Jessica and her friend in their treehouse and falls, breaking her arm, prompting guilt in Jessica that she should have been closer paying attention to Emma. Kids of all ages will be both moved and entertained by this engaging poem-story.
POEMS WITH A THEME
Lee Bennett Hopkins is another kingpin of children’s poetry, having assembled many wonderful collections over the years. His latest, I Am the Book, is a collection of poems—including one of his own—all about books and the pleasures of reading. These are fun, animated poems, such as this verse from Beverly McLoughland’s “When I Read”:
When I read, I like to dive
In the sea of words and swim
Feet kicking fast across the page
Splashing words against my skin.
The energy is enhanced with acrylics by an illustrator named Yayo, whose vibrant colors enliven every page. In the illustration for this poem, for instance, a streamlined diver plunges into a bright blue sea, which rests on top of a gigantic book, all atop a sandy yellow background.
More creative illustrations are waiting in Peaceful Pieces: Poems and Quilts about Peace by Anna Grossnickle Hines, a follow-up to her lovely A Year in Poems and Quilts. Hines’ illustrations are photographs of her own amazing, handmade quilts. And phenomenal they are, with wonderful backgrounds and vibrant colors, patterns and textures, and people, too, such as a boy in a kayak or a curly-haired girl holding a butterfly.
Hines’ poems are just as wonderful and varied as her quilts, discussing peace in its many forms, whether between a hamster and a snake, siblings, schoolmates, armies or countries. There’s plenty of food for thought here, including a spread dedicated to eight peacemakers, ranging from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. to child peacemakers Samantha Smith and Mattie Stepanek.
Hines ends her book with a few pages explaining who these peacemakers are, and also discusses how she created her quilts. She relates the long history of quilt-making, storytelling and artistic and community collaboration. This is indeed a treasure trove of beauty and inspiration.